There is no such thing as Buddhism. Any “ism” is clinging to ideas.
Hence, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:
And the Eightfold Path:
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However, there are teachings credited to the Buddha. These are noble (provisional, not ultimate) teachings. They take us to the place where no teachings are needed.
Buddhism is a story that changes your relationship to all other stories.
Therapy is about changing your story for the better. Buddhism is seeing through your story — rendering it transparent, not taking it so seriously.
Psychotherapy yields insights that apply to you. Spiritual practice yields insights that apply to everybody.
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The path starts with skepticism.
In the Sutra of Dense Array, Buddha says:
…just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting, and rubbing it, so you must examine my words and accept them, but not merely out of reverence for me.
I grew up Lutheran. Did my minister ever ask me to set aside reverence and examine everything he said?
No. He would have been fired.
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This post is everything I’ve been able to verify about Buddhism through personal testing.
There’s not a lot here — under 2,000 words. But they point to something liberating.
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The big picture: Cling to nothing as I, me, or mine.
According to the Buddha, anyone who understands this also understands the whole teaching and practice.
This is what the Buddha taught a dying man.
For more details, see Kenneth Folk’s quick start guide to enlightenment.
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Even simpler: Forget Buddhism. Simply notice what happens in body and mind when suffering arises.
Also notice what happens when suffering passes.
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First Noble Truth: Suffering exists.
There is a saying: Each of us has shed more tears over countless lifetimes than there is water in all the oceans.
Whenever you feel pissed off at someone, remember: They’re probably going through something.
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The First Noble Truth is sometimes expressed as: Shit happens.
That’s not quite it.
It’s more like: Stuff happens and then we react.
We see the world through the lens of our requirements. When people and events violate our requirements, we call it shit.
But this reaction comes from the mind that distinguishes between shit and non-shit. If we release this distinction, then there’s no shit.
Notice all your requirements. Then be willing to let them go.
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Dukkha is often rendered as suffering, but that’s a poor translation.
Sometimes teachers talk about stress or dissatisfaction instead.
That’s not quite it, either. Dukkha can involve pleasure, too, if you get attached to it.
Dukkha is a deep-seated and pervasive discontent. It’s the sneaking suspicion that something is missing in life, that we are fundamentally lacking in some mysterious way.
Our reflexive response is to fill this gap by seeking, by looking outside ourselves.
We try to change our circumstances to align with our desires. We distract ourselves with chemicals, entertainment, and perpetual busyness.
But circumstances and contentment are not directly correlated. We can be miserable in the midst of pristine circumstances.
The source of discontentment is in our heart-mind.
Let’s discover the heart-mind that is free of suffering in any circumstance.
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The Second and Third Noble Truths remind us that suffering arises when we cling — that is, when we push and pull on experience.
Pleasure feels good. We try to pull it closer and make it last.
Discomfort doesn’t feel good. We try to push it away.
Man, that’s a lot of work. We do it to get happy, but — ironically — this effort is the source of unhappiness.
Our effort springs from ignorance of dukkha’s true source.
Dukkha is something that we are actively doing. It’s all that pushing and pulling.
Want to stop suffering? Then notice when you’re pushing and pulling, and be willing to stop.
Stop demanding that things be anything other than what they are in this moment.
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There is a path to releasing clinging — the Eightfold Path, the subject of the Fourth Noble Truth.
This path includes three sets of practices:
- Sila, the harmony of relationships; practicing ethical behavior, non-harming, kindness, generosity
- Samhadi — the taste of tranquility; practicing meditation; a quiet mind; a unified mind, alert and open to anything
- Panna — insight that deepens into wisdom; practicing with an intention to wake up
In short, the path is about purifying behavior, attention, and understanding.
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Anicca is the bedrock of Buddhism. This word refers to change, to impermanence. The Buddha called it the first sign of existence.
People, circumstances, and mind states come and go constantly. Whatever arises, passes.
Anything that comes and goes cannot satisfy you permanently. That’s dukkha again, also called the second sign of existence.
In addition, anything that comes and goes is not you. Your identity is based on personal traits that don’t change. What if none of those can be found? That’s anatta, the third sign of existence.
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Our practice is to stop controlling and start noticing.
Just let mind states be what they are. Let them come and go.
Whatever you’re feeling right now, it will change.
Just notice what all those mind states disappear into. There is a source of serenity that doesn’t depend on pushing and pulling, on doing or having.
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Keeping the practice simple is…a real practice.
Here is one approach:
- Start with a few minutes of metta meditation.
- Anchor the attention on the breath or another object.
- Drop the anchor and simply notice whatever arises in body and mind, letting it come and go.
Also practice on the run, throughout the day:
- Remember: There is always another way to respond to what’s happening right now.
- Every time you state your opinion, end with the words… or not.
- Do noting practice at any time. Naming mental states — without judgment — can help us release them. It can be as simple as saying to yourself…Ah, this.
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Practice makes us accidentally prone to insight.
Insights that occur during meditation are creativity attacks.
Insight just happens. Nobody “does” it.
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Experiences such as sex and sports offer a taste of samhadi — focused attention, a mind unified in the present moment.
A unified mind is the opposite of a distracted mind, of going on auto-pilot.
A unified mind is “in sync” — not scattered, not working against itself.
The mind can be unified in the service of anything — listening to music, mastering a skill, selling something, stealing something, killing something, whatever.
The wisdom of the Eightfold Path is that it starts with ethical behavior. That’s the foundation. First, do no harm. Second, park your ass firmly on your cushion and meditate. But never forget: The order is important.
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We practice to unify the mind in the service of one skill — releasing clinging.
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Bringing a unified mind to ordinary pleasures makes them richer and deeper. Even one mindful sip of coffee is bliss.
Why was I searching so far and wide for happiness?
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(This teaching is from Mark Nunberg at Common Ground Meditation Center.)
Q: What is the place of social activism in Buddhism?
A: It has no special place apart from the rest of the teaching. Practice changes the world.
A: The Buddha was a social activist. He rejected the caste system and animal sacrifice. He accepted women as monks.
If the Buddha were alive today, he might caution us against drama (The world is ending tomorrow…) and condemnation (…because of denial and corrupt politicians).
Reality is lawful. It unfolds from myriad causes and conditions. Why blame any particular person?
Given what’s already happened, how could the world be other than what it is?
Our practice is to respond naturally and appropriately to any condition that arises. Such a response does not arise out of anger, fear, or sadness.
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What would the Buddha say about global warming, for instance?
- Global warming is a natural phenomenon. The earth is experiencing an infestation of human beings who produce too much carbon dioxide. In response, the earth will change in order to survive.
- This might mean creating conditions that exclude human life. Mother Nature can be a real mother.
- Even the earth will die someday. Like every other phenomenon, it is impermanent.
- Don’t worry about it. There will be other worlds to practice in.
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There’s a world of difference between:
- I am angry and
- Ah, there’s anger again.
The first statement is identifying with a passing mind state. The second is noticing a passing mind state.
The first statement is taking anger personally as I, me, and mine. The second statement is taking anger impersonally.
Thoughts and feelings are impersonal. They are natural events like sunshine, snow, and rain. They arise and pass away beyond our control.
Seeing things impersonally helps us to be impartial — less reactive, more kind.
When you take things personally, you descend into hell.
Anything that you can notice is not you. It is just something being known.
Be the knowing.
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I hear people describe meditation as getting centered. It’s more like getting un-centered.
Years ago, while sitting during a meditation retreat, I experienced this. The borders of my body disappeared. There was experience with no center — no separate me localized in space.
Waves of feeling followed — fear, then curiosity, then peace. There was no fear of death. There was no question of wanting anything. I was everything.
There’s no center to an ocean or the sky. Likewise, boundless expanse is our true nature.
There are no nouns — no separate people or objects. There’s just constant movement and change (verbs).
Seeing ourselves as the center of the universe and separate from everything else takes a lot of work. What a relief to drop that effort.
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Enlightenment means being able to see the world from two perspectives — with distinctions when appropriate, and without distinctions otherwise.
Enlightenment is no big deal. It’s the booby prize. It won’t solve your problems or make you a nice person.
I don’t practice to get enlightened. I practice to notice toxic mind states before they turn into toxic behaviors.
It’s hard to tell when someone is enlightened. “Enlightened” people can still be jerks.
It’s easier to tell when someone is being kind.
Buddhism is practicing kindness.