These seven topics I find to be most important for understanding the distinction between the core of Gotama’s teachings on one hand, & the cultural context & language in which they have been handed down to us on the other. These descriptions are not meant to be either critical of other approaches or comprehensive, but only to suggest new language to explore. From these points of departure, I find, we can make our way through all of his insights & advice.
Middle way: paṭiccasamuppāda, dependent arising
Thoughts are just one aspect of experience. There are not who you are. They are valuable tools, but nothing more than that. If you think that thoughts themselves deserve special status, make sure you look at the process that they arise from.
Careful thought can be helpful, but it is very easy to get trapped in unhelpful views, metaphysics & other complex ideas. We get drunk or high on some cosmic notion that seems to explain everything. We try to tie down the profound, but get tangled in knots of nonsense. Gotama’s response to this is difficult to capture succinctly. He said that the right way to understand is to see that everything we experience—including ideas—depends on many other things. This is not meant to be an idea to be accepted; it describes what can be directly seen by a still & otherwise prepared mind.
When we look closely at our experience, we see sights, sounds & ideas arising, then passing away. We can look as closely as we like at an idea, but like the layers of an onion, we search in vain for its center, the something that it is without reference to something else. How can we explain any word or idea without using other words or ideas?1 Everything depends on its context for understanding. We get attached to an idea like “eternal” or convinced that “everything is meaningless” even as we ponder that this statement itself has…”meaning”! Seeing directly that our experience is an endless flux of arising & passing away, we try to label this or tie that down. We try to use it to explain experience to ourselves, to soothe our anxiety, to ward off the fear of death, to know what to do. But the best we can do is find our balance while riding this flux, not grasping after elusive ideas but training ourselves to remain calm amidst the chaos. This is Gotama’s method of avoiding the traps of philosophy, if you will.2 The more we understand the other aspects of his teachings, the clearer this truth becomes.
Nature of person: what comes before who
We are obsessed with who we are. The real issus is, what are we? Once we use trained introspection to see what we are, the notion of who we are becomes irrelevant in terms of human suffering (dukkha) & freedom from suffering.
Gotama saw that to understand the human problem, we must start with the basic experience of human existence. Searching for some ”essence” only leads to suffering. We have evolved to have needs that serve only the pattern of physical survival (& thus reproduction), not our true happiness. In fact, we are literally wired to be unhappy (what’s known as Gotama’s first ennobling truth, about dukkha, suffering & stress.) We must look calmly & closely at our needs for sense pleasures & collections of charming ideas, & see that these needs are not what we are. The dull, throbbing ache of “Who am I? Why am I? Where am I going?” can be relieved by clearly seeing what we are & what we are not. True happiness & a sense of what to do flow naturally from this clear seeing, which requires practiced concentration, calm, & insight.
Person of Buddha: Gotama
“The Buddha” was not a god. That’s a good thing. He was a uniquely wise being. That’s more useful than being a god, actually.
It is a natural human tendency to deify someone whose insights & accomplishments put them so far beyond our ordinary experience as human beings. But Gotama specifically denied he was a god; he saw the idea of gods-as-a-source-of-solace as just something else that would ultimately disappoint us & cause suffering. It is inspiring & instructive to know that he was extraordinary, but human—extra-ordinarily human, you might say. That he was human means that ordinary humans can follow his teachings with success, transcending our given, suffering human experience.
Kamma: history of habits
Without training, we become victims of our past, repeating painful habits. We can train ourselves to break free of this. Knowing that we can do this is the ultimate human consolation.
Kamma, or karma, is frequently misunderstood as a primitive, fatalistic belief or as a vague wishful substitute for a just & benevolent force beyond human understanding. But it can be explained most usefully as a vast matrix of habits that flows throughout the history of sentient beings. It is the effect of human actions from the past on our situation right now, in the very moment you are reading this. It does not include everything that affects what happens; some things happen by chance, unrelated to what we do. To understand kamma as Gotama described it, we must invert the historical telescope: We look through the big lens of understanding, making it into a microscope to examine our experience in the moment, with the help of Gotama’s brilliant tools of analysis. Seeing how our suffering arises each moment because of our bad habits of understanding what we are, we suddenly understand how our individual sufferings right now become compounded into the “mass of suffering” that afflicts humans & all the sentient beings we live with. We see a vast river of tears & sorrow flowing through time, & also how to cross that flood to freedom.
Sīla: training for true happiness
It may seem discouraging that freedom requires personal discipline & effort. But consider: This means freedom is available to all of us. It does not require miracles, only sincere effort.
Sīla is sometimes thought of as the same as ethics or morality in wisdom traditions. While it is indeed a set of recommendations on how to behave, there’s an important distinction. Gotama’s sīla is not as a set of “thou shalts” that magically guarantee salvation in some future heaven. This sīla shows how behaviors that conflict with our natural human benevolence distract us from clearly seeing how psychological suffering & stress arise in our experience. It shows how it interferes with deeper training that can allow us to see our experience in the moment quickly & clearly enough to avoid suffering & stress for ourselves & others. (This is why sīla is a key part of preliminary training, allowing for deeper training later.) It is the process of learning through training how our behavior causes us suffering when it conflicts with our basic human benevolence. It is the equivalent of an athlete getting her body in shape for more sophisticated training in her chosen sport. Our sport is life. If we are not strong & flexible, trained for the endurance we need to maintain keen attention to everything in our experience, all the time, we cannot win against the opponent: our unconscious desires & delusions. We cannot afford to fall into the ordinary traps of thoughtlessly harming of others, selfishly taking, being mindlessly driven by sexual urges to harm others, pointlessly lying, & distracting ourselves with intoxicants that make us foolish. If we step onto the playing field with these disadvantages, we will never win true happiness.
Pragmatism: it has to work here & now
Everything about Gotama’s teachings is practical. It works just like other processes you know about that are practical. You learn to be a carpenter. You learn to play a musical instrument. You practice & become skilled at a sport, a skill of any kind. There is no mystical secret. “Come & see.” Start whenever you like. Whenever you can.
Gotama said “What I have always taught about is just stress & suffering & how to end them.”3 All his teachings support that goal. There is nothing extra in his teachings beyond that. This phrase is like a touchstone, a key to all his other teachings. If you cannot understand a particular teaching in terms of how it relates to ending dukkha, then it is time to ponder it further. If a teaching seems to lead to breathless cosmic statements, magical beliefs, or romantic notions, consider that you have missed the point. This pragmatic approach is what makes Gotama’s teachings capable of being rearticulated for use in our current day & age. It is vital to understand the pragmatic meaning of each of his teachings, to separate them from culture & superstition. This is what makes them useable here & now without cognitive dissonance in our era of advanced natural science & pervasive technology.
“Sacred”: growing up; getting over it
The nature of things, as they really are, is not friendly. Death is not friendly. Denying this is a sure route to suffering. All the traditional ways of ignoring this reality end at the same spot. We must turn & face the monster of mortality. Change is our enemy as long as we deny it; but we can seek to understand it instead.
We are by nature frightened beings. This helps us to survive, of course. We would prefer to live forever, but we know both consciously & in a deep subconscious layer of instinct that this body will die. The simmering terror of this drives our cultures, our personal illusions about who & what we are, & all of the horrific human actions that we lump together as “evil.” Our minds desparately want a theory to unify all the thoughts & feelings we have stitched together in our vain attempt to cool down the terror. We invent something we call “sacred” to fill this need, a constellation imagined as we search the night sky for benevolence & meaning in the universe. But these inventions only succeed in distracting us & avoiding the necessary confrontation with the terror. It is like the monster that forever chases us in our nightmares. Only by turning & confronting it can we truly escape. Gotama realizes this, & his teachings are built on training ourselves to turn against the nightmare monster & vanquish it.
1 This truism of postmodern thought is actually quite old. More importantly, Gotama offers techniques for seeing it directly in experience, rather than accepting it as a discursive thought.
2 Here Gotama anticipates Wittgenstein’s understanding of language, but again, as part of a pragmatic method rather than a purely philosophical statement.
3 This is my translation of Alagaddūpama Sutta MN 22:
Pubbe cāhaṃ, bhikkhave, etarahi ca dukkhañceva paññāpemi, dukkhassa ca nirodhaṃ