ON THE ESSENCE OF BUDDHISM: Practicing Awareness and Acceptance (Part 3)

(LAOS, Ban Xieng Mene) A bell at the entrance of the Wat Xieng Mene. (Photo taken by the author.)

Proceeding from the earlier parts of this essay, the Fourth Noble Truth is nothing more than the practical guide on how to overcome delusion. Called the Noble Eightfold Path, this guide prescribes eight “right practices” designed to bring one’s way of acting, thinking and being in the world into alignment with the reality of the world (as opposed to acting, thinking and being in the world in a deluded way). This path involves a clear sequence with regard to the eight practices. Three of the practices (right speech, right action and right livelihood) involve the correct way of acting and embody Buddhist morality or shila. Another three of the practices (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) involve the correct way of thinking and embody Buddhist meditation or samadhi. The remaining two practices (right view, right thought) involve the correct way of being and embody Buddhist wisdom or prajna. This correct way of being is nothing other than the way of being of one who has been freed of delusion—or to use Buddhism’s own terms—one who has “awakened” from delusion. Hence, the culmination of the Noble Eightfold Path lies in achieving wisdom, and one can view morality and meditation as foundational practices without which wisdom can never be achieved (or can perhaps still be achieved but only with extreme difficulty). Again, the stress here is on overcoming delusion—if one loses sight of this intention, the Noble Eightfold Path degenerates into nothing more than a mere set of dogmatic rules for living.

To recap what I have said so far about the central tenets of Buddhism: (1) life is suffering, (2) suffering is caused by desire, which is nothing but the twin poisons of lust and hate, (3) desiring is caused by the third poison of delusion, which is nothing but the illusory belief in permanence (both of the self and the world) and the insistence on what is not, and (4) suffering can therefore be overcome by a continuous awareness of the impermanence of all existence (including the self) and a radical acceptance of what already is. Now, what allows me to reduce the practice of Buddhism to the disciplines of awareness and acceptance? How can I justify this positive simplification of its essence?

First of all, if one accepts my earlier thesis that the key to overcoming suffering lies in overcoming delusion, one will have to accept my second thesis, which is that awareness is fundamental to dispelling delusion. If one simply observes one’s self, the world and others, one cannot fail to grasp the notions of non-self or anatman, impermanence or anitya, and suffering or dukha. The liberating power of awareness and its importance in realizing freedom from suffering is precisely why meditation or samadhi is so central to Buddhism. In essence, meditation is nothing but the active awareness of all things, including the self.

However, mere awareness is not enough (though it is a rigorous discipline in its own right). In fact, on its own, awareness can easily lead to a more heightened experience of suffering. There is a corollary discipline required, which is the discipline of a very radical acceptance. This acceptance is nothing more or less than the acceptance of how things already are, without wanting them to be otherwise and without lamenting their eventual and inevitable passing away. If one examines the different notions and practices developed or emphasized by the different Buddhist schools (and there are countless), one can perceive that for all their surface variety, their fundamental intent is simply to dispel the delusions of the self and/or permanence and to intensify one’s capacity for accepting what already is. Ultimately, the diverse Buddhist notions, practices and schools are simply different devices for achieving the same aim, and the variety stems from the other fact that, as the Buddha himself recognized, different cultures—and even more fundamentally, different individuals—require distinctive approaches.


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