Buddhism: What does it mean to lead a spiritual life

Buddhist spirituality is concerned with the end of suffering through the enlightened understanding of reality. The spiritual practices of the Buddhist tradition vary significantly among its several major varieties, but all of them are oriented toward ultimate freedom from suffering and the cultivation of wisdom and compassion. The spiritual life–or what the Buddha called the noble or holy life (brahmacarya)–is the life lived in pursuit of these ideals.

Beyond Belief
The holy life in Buddhism begins and ends in practice, not belief and doctrine. To practice Buddhist spirituality, one need not subscribe to a particular set of creedal statements. It is not necessary to believe in God or to deny the God’s existence. Buddhism does not ask those who would take its path to reject prior faith commitments or to adopt new ones. For living the holy life, says Buddhism, holding particular beliefs is not paramount. Clearly, noble persons have held all sorts of beliefs; saints have been Christian and Jewish, Muslim and Hindu, atheist and humanist. Buddhists, therefore, have no quarrel with other religions and philosophies on doctrinal and creedal issues. Because they understand the goal of the holy life to be freedom from suffering and the cultivation of compassion, Buddhists acknowledge that other perspectives and practices can genuinely mediate salvation.

Because Buddhism is not centered in belief, Buddhist spirituality tends neither to affirm nor to deny answers to many traditional metaphysical questions. In one of the suttas–the collection of the Buddha’s discourses–a longtime student complains that nowhere in his teachings has the Buddha explained some of the fundamental aspects of reality. The student pressed the Buddha to provide definitive answers. He wanted to know whether or not the universe was created or eternal and whether it was spatially infinite or spatially finite. He asked if the soul were separate from the body or at one with the body. He wanted to know what happens at death: does the individual survive or dissolve? These are questions that any thoughtful person might sincerely ask. But unlike other teachers of his time, the Buddha merely refused to answer them. Knowing the answers to matters such as these, he said, is not essential to human liberation and fulfillment. The Buddha was well aware that the world is rife with speculations and theories purporting to provide the answers to these basic questions. In his world, as in ours, theoretical views are a dime a dozen. But in the final analysis, such speculation remains a matter of belief or opinion, for in this life these questions cannot be settled with any certainty. Furthermore, seeking answers to unanswerable questions diverts precious time and energy away from the real of heart of spirituality: the quest of wisdom and compassion. To be wise and compassionate does not require that we settle the many metaphysical questions we might pose.

Becoming Who We Truly Are
In the Buddhist view, wisdom and compassion are intrinsically linked together. One cannot be truly compassionate without wisdom. Wisdom–seeing the world as it really is–reveals the deep interrelatedness and impermanency of all things. When we genuinely recognize this, compassion is our natural response. When we have wisdom, we cannot help but feel compassion. By the same token, practicing compassion helps us to realize our fundamentally wise natures. Living compassionately means to think and act without putting ourselves at the center of the universe, without believing that “It’s all about me.” To recognize that the whole of existence does not revolve around these little entities we call our selves is the beginning of wisdom. Thus wisdom and compassion arise together. As we become more compassionate, we gain wisdom; as we become wiser, our compassionate natures are more fully revealed.

Wisdom and compassion are also innate. Our fundamental nature as persons is to be wise and compassionate, but years of social and self conditioning have obscured those qualities. We have learned to act and think in self-centered ways for so long that selfishness now seems natural. We need, think Buddhists, a practice, a discipline for reversing the effects of years of conditioning to return us to our true selves. Yet because our habits of self-centeredness are so deep and ingrained, the discipline needs to be gradual and gentle. We cannot expect radical transformation to happen overnight, nor can we expect to be the persons we wish to be simply by willing. Willing must be accompanied by acting. By acting compassionately and wisely, it becomes easier to will to be compassionate and wise. Buddhist spiritual practice, therefore, is a matter of training: learning and acting to be the persons we truly are.

The Noble Path
The basis of spiritual training in Buddhism is the “Noble Path,” first put forward by the Buddha over 2,500 years ago. The Noble Path comprises eight interrelated disciplines that are simultaneously pursued by the aspirant. Each discipline is intended as a guide for helping us to recover our essential natures. Four disciplines specifically concern moral behavior and intend to assist in the practice of compassion: Wholesome action, wholesome speech, wholesome livelihood, and wholesome effort. The other four are specific aids for nurturing wisdom: wholesome concentration, wholesome mindfulness, wholesome thinking, and wholesome understanding.

Developing Compassion through Moral Behavior
The first aspect of Buddhist discipline is moral behavior. Morality, indeed, is the basis of many spiritual practices, not only the Buddhist. But unlike many other religions, moral behavior in Buddhism is not commanded by a God who issues specific prescriptions and proscriptions for human beings. Rather, morality is understood to be rooted in our very natures as persons. We ought to act in a moral way because it is in our essential natures to be compassionate.

In Buddhism, the first element in moral practice is wholesome action, which is epitomized in the Five Precepts, vows taken by all followers of the Buddha’s teachings, whether ordained or lay. In many Asian countries, learning the Five Precepts is usually the child’s first introduction to the Buddhism, and they remain the foundation for living throughout one’s life. The Five Precepts are aspirations, promises made and earnestly attempted. As we begin the holy life, we follow the precepts imperfectly. When we fail to live up to the ideals, we simply acknowledge our failure and endeavor to do better next time. Over time, our ability to adhere to the precepts becomes increasingly easier.

These foundational precepts essentially follow the principle of non-harming, an idea that resounds widely throughout the world’s philosophical and ethical traditions. Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, exhorted his students, “First, do no harm.” Master Kong, the Chinese sage whose teaching became the foundation of Confucianism, told his followers: “What you do not want done to you, do not do to others.” These teachers, like the Buddha, recognized that at its most basic level moral behavior is not a matter of what one does but of what one refrains from doing. Imagine the kind of world this would be if we simply followed the precept to do no harm.

The first precept states this principle in its simplest form: “I will refrain from harming other beings.” Some Buddhists interpret this precept strictly and practice vegetarianism and refuse to kill insects. Others, realizing the great difficulty of living in this world without taking life, strive to minimize the amount of harm they do. The second precept intends to minimize harming by respecting the possessions of other: “I will refrain from taking that which is not offered.” In other words, one vows not to steal or covet. Stealing harms others by taking what belongs to them, and coveting fosters selfishness and creates attachment to the impermanent realm of things. The third precept concerns the potential harm one might cause in the area of sexuality. The aspirant promises: “I will refrain from sexual misconduct.” The misuse of sexuality is a source of much pain and hurt in our lives, and sex itself can become an all-consuming passion, creating unwholesome attachments to persons and patterns of behavior. The fourth precept concerns the misuse of language: “I will refrain from false speech.” False speech, in Buddhism, is not only lying and slandering but also gossiping and babbling. “Noble silence” is the Buddhist’s preferred state. Finally, the fifth precept regards the abuse of intoxicants and other substances: “I will refrain from stupefying drink.” Unquestionably, the misuse of drugs and alcohol causes great suffering in our world, both for the abuser and for others. Not only does alcohol and substance use often result in addiction, it can dull the senses, hindering our capacity to see the world clearly, as it truly is.

The other aspects of moral practice in Buddhist spirituality follow the principles established by the discipline of wholesome action. Wholesome speech means we should use of our abilities to communicate in the most generous and beneficial ways possible. While the Five Precepts enjoins us to refrain from false speaking, wholesome speech encourages us to speak only kind words and to speak them clearly. Harsh and bitter language, sarcasm, and meaningless chatter are not conducive to the habits of compassion. Wholesome livelihood means we ought to earn our livings in ways that promote the well being of others rather than their harm. Thus the holy life extends to every aspect of our lives, including our workaday world. This discipline asks us to reflect seriously on the meaning and effects of our work. Livelihood is not merely a matter of getting money for daily living; how we earn our wages has consequences for beings beyond ourselves. Wholesome effort means deliberate attention to developing positive qualities that help relax our self-centered tendencies. These characteristics include generosity, friendliness, and patience. The holy life in Buddhism involves specific exercises for practicing these and other qualities, so the hindrances that prevent their pure expression are gradually removed.

Developing Wisdom through Mental Cultivation
Skillful moral behavior is essential to the holy life, but it is equally important that the aspirant cultivate the mind to see reality clearly. Just as self-centered habits obscure the basic compassion of the human heart, deluded patterns of thinking hinder our ability to understand the world. Buddhism recognizes that the conditioned mind is unruly and undisciplined. It constantly seeks stimulation and excitement. It has an inordinate love of ideas and is habituated to pursue pleasurable sensations and abhor unpleasant ones. It loves to control but is itself rather out of control. The four disciplines of wholesome concentration, wholesome mindfulness, wholesome thinking, and wholesome understanding are ways of restraining the mind and harnessing its considerable powers for the benefit of others and ourselves.

Buddhism does not consider the mind to be the seat of the personality. While in the Western world we tend to identify with our thoughts and feelings, Buddhism encourages individuals to understand themselves differently. The mind may be regarded as a sense organ–like the other five senses–rather than center of the self. Just as the eye senses light and the ear senses sound, the mind senses thought and feeling. Just as conditioning makes us sensitive to certain sights and sounds and insensitive to others, so conditioning predisposes us to certain thoughts and emotions. The effects of mental conditioning can be lessened and ultimately released through the practices of wholesome concentration and wholesome mindfulness.

Wholesome concentration is the discipline of meditation; wholesome mindfulness is the practice of meditative awareness in daily life. Meditation is used throughout the world’s religions for various purposes: communicating and communing with the God, gaining deeper access to the soul, and relaxing the body. The Buddha himself used meditation to bring about his enlightenment while seated under the Bodhi tree in Northern India 2,500 years ago. Today, Buddhist practitioners who seek to live the holy life engage in the same disciplines. Buddhist meditation, or mental cultivation (bhavana) as it is better expressed, is a method for strengthening attentiveness and non-attachment. Buddhism understands that much of our suffering is caused by our failure to attend to the world around us and to our own mental and emotional states. We are so deeply caught up in our pursuits of pleasure and stimulation that we often fail to recognize that the mind’s desperate quests and attachments are the very things that cause us to suffer. We rarely stop our incessant activity long enough to observe that seeking pleasure and shunning pain does not bring suffering to an end. The discipline of mental cultivation invites us to stop for a while and watch our minds and bodies at work. It teaches what cannot be gained through words and concepts. With meditation, one can allow the world to teach what it has to offer, what is beyond the constructions human beings impose on it. [The Stepping Stones article Cultivating a Quiet Mind: Questions and Answers about the Practice of Meditation has more information about Buddhist meditation and mindfulness.]

Wholesome thinking and wholesome understanding are supported by mental cultivation and mindfulness, as they are supported by (and support) the other disciplines on the Noble Path. Meditation and meditative awareness creates the space for insight and clarity to occur. The thoughts of a clear mind are free of attachment, hatred, and confusion; the thoughts of an insightful mind are compassionate and selfless. Such thoughts constitute wholesome thinking.

Wholesome understanding is to see reality the way it is, unencumbered by expectation, belief, or defilements of any kind. In the Buddhist view, seeing reality clearly means coming to the deep apprehension of what the Buddha called the Four Noble Truths. These truths are the Buddhist view of the central aspects of existence. They are not beliefs or creedal formulae. The Buddha advised aspirants to the holy life never to accept anything on the authority of another but to verify all claims about the truth for oneself. The Buddha was confident that individuals on the holy path would see for themselves the veracity of these statements.

The Four Noble Truths may be expressed this way: (1) Disappointment and dissatisfaction pervade life as we know it. Indeed, we suffer far more than we are usually aware. (2) Disappointment and dissatisfaction arise because we fail to apprehend the impermanent nature of all reality, including our selves. Accordingly, we act in self-centered ways and become unhealthily attached to persons, ideas, and all manner of things. When change occurs–as it always does–our attachments cause us to suffer. (3) One need not develop unhealthy attachments; dissatisfaction, disappointment, and suffering, therefore, are not necessary. (4) The way to freedom is through disciplines that enable us to give up attachments and exercise wisdom and compassion. This is the Noble Path.

Buddhist Spirituality in the Modern World
Although it is one of the world’s oldest enduring spiritual traditions, Buddhist practice may be more compelling in the modern world than ever before. There are many aspects to this practice that the modern person might find attractive. One of these is what might be called the Buddhist orientation toward truth: never accept anything on the authority of another; only accept as true what is established by your own experience. This attitude toward the truth is quintessentially modern and fits well with the ideals the modern world prescribes. Buddhist spirituality does not ask anyone to believe what he or she cannot believe. Buddhism requires no leaps of faith. The individual need only hold as true what is confirmed by experience. If we must hold beliefs or opinions, they ought to be held lightly, lest they become objects of attachment.

Buddhist spirituality, furthermore, promotes a form of life that provides an antidote to the stresses of modern living. As a counterpoint to the haste and hurry, the noise and confusion of this world, Buddhism prescribes a life of quietness and tranquility, a life of contemplation and gentle awareness. Yet Buddhism is not an otherworldly spirituality. It does not recommend that one live oriented toward a future world to come. The time for living is now, the present moment. A future-orientation makes us prone to suffer by generating expectations that may not be fulfilled. How often does the future turn out like we planned? Buddhist spirituality is not about absenting oneself from this reality but rather fully, completely, and courageously facing it. Illness, old-age, and death are genuine features of life, and it does us no good to act as if they are not. The modern world, with its endless entertainments and diversions, its frantic flight from pain, its busyness and speed, seems far more escapist than the holy life.

Finally, Buddhist spirituality is imminently practical. It provides discipline for the mind and the body, for treating others and oneself. It does not merely say, “Love others”; it shows us how to love others. It does not merely say, “Be wise”; it shows us how we may become wise. Because it is practical rather than theoretical, it may be compatible with other religious perspectives. It does not seek the repudiation of other spiritual and philosophical viewpoints.

More than 2,500 years have passed since the Buddhist understanding of life was first taught by Siddhartha Gautama. Today, the spirituality he breathed into the world may be more vital than ever.

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