When I became a Buddhist monk I made a point of trying to read all of Gautama Buddha’s early sutras, not because I’m a scholar or anything, but because I was finding huge discrepancies in the commentaries. I thought it prudent to go back to the nearest thing we have to Gautama Buddha’s actual words. Whilst I was researching these sutras I came across the Mangala Sutra and it seemed to switch a light on inside of me. I spent weeks reflecting the thirty-eight principles and came to the conclusion that this is a path we can all follow, whether we are Buddhist or not. But to what ends?
Now, this is where we may all differ. Many traditional Buddhists, when asked, usually say enlightenment is the end game. However, I always find this a bit disconcerting when people offer up such a goal. If you push them a little further they talk about going to a different place, such as nirvana, not being born again or residing in a Buddha field in some celestial realm. It appears they think of these places of enlightenment as a paradise full of all the nice things we like, and devoid of anything we dislike. They also look upon it as something outside of ourselves. All of which I feel are misunderstandings of what Gautama Buddha actually wanted us to aim for.
I believe Gautama Buddha’s main point was that life is full of suffering from birth through to old age and death, and we ourselves are the main cause of this suffering (although not the only cause). In the Majjhima Nikaya he explains what he taught:
One thing and one thing only do I teach, suffering and how to end suffering.
The paths he spoke about in his teachings are a way for us to try and alleviate this suffering and live a calmer, more responsible life.
Now, before we go on I should explain the use of the word suffering. In Gautama Buddha’s teachings the word used is dukkha and it has commonly been translated as suffering. The suffering we are talking about isn’t just physical pain, but also emotional torment. It includes a feeling of dissatisfaction, anxiety, anguish, unhappiness, desire, discontentment, unease, a feeling of not being whole, frustration and even depression. The list could go on, but I think you get the picture. So whenever I use the word suffering I am using it as an umbrella term to cover all of the above.
I do not believe Gautama Buddha meant for us to dream of going to a different place, such as nirvana, paradise or heaven once we die, or to project all the things we like in this world onto these places. Heaven, nirvana and so forth should be looked upon as states of mind and not actual places.
A key point to remember is that Gautama Buddha never said he was enlightened. The word enlightenment is a mistranslation of the Sanskrit word bodhi, which is actually better translated as awakened.
Once he was asked if he was a god, a sorcerer, a magician, angel or a celestial being and he answered no to all of these. He said he was awake. Being awake is very different to being enlightened. When we are awakened it is right here, right now, in this very life. It is being awake to, or having an awareness of, the way the world really is, and the impact we have on it and the people around us. It is also within us and not something to go searching for in the outside world.
When asked to sum up his teaching in a single word, he said, “awareness.” This awareness is based on our experiences and is not achieved through blindly following a teacher or some teachings. The highest authority is our own experiences. It is not enough to rely on faith or understanding Gautama Buddha’s teachings intellectually. We have to experience it as he did. His teachings are all based on his own personal experiences and he strongly encouraged us to do the same. This fact seems to have become hidden under a mass of dogma, tradition and culture.
I see this awareness Gautama Buddha talked about as spirituality and not religion. To me religion is a belief in another person’s experiences, whereas spirituality is having an awareness of your own experiences. That is quiet a big difference.
His teachings took on lots of beliefs, rituals, ceremonies and practices once he died and his discourses began to move from country to country. It has also taken on superstitions and old wives tales. I think sometimes all of these trappings are masking the true meaning of Gautama Buddha’s words, which were actually practical and quite simple. We have to look at his teachings with an open and critical mind. Don’t be afraid of asking questions and having doubts. Both of these are healthy. Even Gautama Buddha said this himself in his last discourse, “If any amongst you has any doubts as to Gautama Buddha, the teaching or the order of monks, ask me now so that afterwards you may have no cause to regret that you did not ask me while I was still with you.”
So it is important not to suppress your doubts. Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, stated that wise people have doubt:
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.
Following his teachings isn’t just about bowing to teachers, building statues or stupas (a mound like structure usually containing Buddhist relics), paying someone else to do prayers for you or even lighting butter-lamps. It is about realising that you are suffering and then becoming aware of what is causing you to suffer, understanding there is a cure, and finally, working towards cutting down that suffering. All of this is carried out in this very life and so we do not have to wait till we are dead to become awakened. Remember, Gautama Buddha advised us to work out our own liberation in this life, and don’t put it off or depend on others. He stated in the Mahaparanivana Sutra that:
Each of you, make yourself an island, make yourself your refuge, there is no other refuge.
The point I am trying to convey here is that what he taught was for you to look inward, as it is you who is suffering, so it is you who has to do the work to alleviate it. Do not think that simply doing prayers or financially supporting a monastery is going to get you to have less suffering in your life. It may or may not help, but it certainly isn’t the whole solution.
The way I look at it is we do not honestly know if we have been here before or if we will come back again. However, what we do know is that we are here now and it is now that we are suffering. So it seems to make sense to try our best to reduce the suffering at this time.
To me this is a win-win situation. We reduce our suffering now in this very life and if there is a next life, we would have set ourselves up for a good rebirth. So whether you believe in rebirth or not, you will end up winning. Gautama Buddha stated this in the Apannaka Sutra:
Even if one believes there is no other world, no future reward for helpful actions or punishment for harmful ones, still in this very life one can live happily, by keeping oneself free from anger, ill-will and anxiety.
I’m not a gambling man, but even I feel these odds are great.