“My words are easy to understand
And easier to put into practice,
Yet no one in the world understands or practices them.”
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 70
These words were written by Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, the other great Chinese philosophical school (along with Buddhism and Confucianism), but they apply equally to Buddhist or any other spiritual practice.
We tend to want to complicate things. We assume that what is profound must also be abstruse. It is as if, by making something difficult, we are provided with an excuse not to practice.
A couple of years ago I decided I needed to lose a little unwanted poundage. I knew the recipe was very simple: be careful with what you eat, exercise more, be mindful and measure the effects of what you do. I probably don’t need to tell you how many excuses I found to do none of those things. I was too tired, too busy, too weak, too old, and so on and so on. In the end, though, by gradual and diligent practice – I began a very modest walking program, kept a food and exercise diary, monitored my weight and caloric intake – I managed, over an twelve-month period, to lose over 50 lbs and drop three full clothing sizes.
The key, I think, was to take things very gradually, expect setbacks and take encouragement from small successes. The day I donated all of my `fat clothes’ to charity was the day I felt I had really reached my goal and there was no turning back.
The same principles apply to spiritual discipline. The Buddha said:
“Do no harm.
Purify the mind.
This is the teaching of the Buddhas.”
Dhammapada, Chapter 14
What could be more simple? What is even more astounding is that this simple aphorism expresses the absolute fundamental practice of Buddhism in its entirety!
According to tradition, the Buddha led a sheltered life as a child. His father was afraid of a prophecy that predicted his son would either become a great warrior or a great saint. As a warrior king, Siddhartha’s father wanted to ensure that he followed in his own footsteps and so Siddhartha’s exposure to the world outside the court was extremely limited.
Like most of us, the Buddha struggled with the fundamental questions about existence. Why do we get old? Why do we become ill? Why must we die? In short, why must we suffer? In his limited forays outside the palace, Siddhartha Gotama was exposed, on separate occasions, to a man, hobbled with age, a man who was sick and diseased and a funerary procession. He was able to recognize that these three `marks of existence’ – old age, sickness and death — characterized our life on earth and contemplation of the profound nature of these existential realities propelled him into a life of asceticism and spiritual questing. The final result was Siddhartha’s enlightenment – his awakening or realization of Buddhahood – and the articulation of the four noble truths:
1. Life is unsatisfactory – filled with suffering and want (dukkha).
2. Suffering is caused by unquenchable craving (annica) and has no independent existence (annata).
3. There is an end to suffering (nirvana).
4. The end to suffering is through the practice of the noble eightfold path:
1. Right view
2. Right intention
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right meditation
The first six can be summed up with the simple phrase, “Do no harm, do good”. The seventh and eighth steps by the phrase “purify the mind”. This then, is “the teaching of the Buddhas” (the enlightened ones), or the essence of Buddhist thought and practice. We can recognize in this basic expression a re-framing of the “golden rule” or “golden mean” – do not treat others in any way that you would not want to be treated – `do no harm’.
This is the first and primary principle and is the essence of the Buddhist practice of non-violence. There is the story of the Buddhist monk who did not so much as want to walk or lie on the grass for fear of harming the grass itself or the insect life that lived on it. This is also the essence of many Buddhists practicing vegetarianism for fear of causing harm to other sentient beings.
In the event that the first principle is not sufficient (we sometimes, even inadvertently cannot help but cause harm – step on a spider, hurt someone’s feelings) we can `do good’. We can act in a way that expresses our compassion (karuna) and lovingkindness (metta). In so doing we can overcome our selfish attachments and our inclinations to anger and ill will.
Finally, through mindfulness (awareness and of the present moment and attunement to what is really happening) and meditation (contemplation, reflection, concentration, insight), we can come to understand the mind and how to use it as an ally on our journey to nirvana (enlightenment).
Yet, even though these principles are easy to understand, and even easier to practice, and even though most of us, regardless of our faiths or belief systems would agree as to the fundamental truths of these tenets, we struggle to make these truths a reality in our daily lives. Why?
Perhaps it’s all too simple, too easy to be true. And yet we know it is not easy. It takes tremendous courage to pursue a life characterized by the four noble truths. To do no harm requires a constant vigilance; to do good requires soul searching and determined action; to purify the mind requires some undivided time and attention. It is easy to become sidetracked and discouraged. There is a concept in Mahayana Buddhism called Bodhicitta, which may be interpreted to mean the “aspiration to enlightenment”. It is a combination of heart and mind that seeks the liberation of all sentient beings. It also lends itself to the belief that one who sets his mind on enlightenment is really already enlightened. Lao Tzu said, “Every journey begins with a single step.” Every time we act in a way that does no harm, every action we do to do good and every act of mindfulness, insight and meditation brings us into harmony, equanimity and abundance – step by step we demonstrate the profound truth of our own Buddha nature. This is the teaching of the Buddhas.
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.