Learn to Practise Buddhism – Part 1

A Do-It-Yourself Approach to Happiness

This is the first in a 9 part series on learning to practise Buddhism.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

Introduction to Buddhism

There are many ways of explaining Buddhism. Sometimes it is said it is not a religion, it is a philosophy or a way of living. Whatever label it has is less important than how it can help us.

Buddhism is a way of living and self training which develops and refines our disposition, our attitudes, our behaviour and cultivates our mind on a path that produces deep personnel happiness and wellbeing.

Buddhism enables us to turn our life into an unfolding source of inner understanding or insight of ourselves, others and the world we experience.

The teachings of Buddhism are based upon the way nature works, the way our mind works naturally. These Teachings arise from the Buddha’s perfectly clear observation and insight into the mind and into the processes of life.

The Buddha simply saw things perfectly clearly. That was the quality of his attainment as a Buddha. This is what is generally referred to as enlightenment. His incomparable Buddha mind was sublime wisdom itself and the origin of what became the religion Buddhism.

There were 56 religions in Buddha’s time. Why did he start another one?

The Buddha saw what no one else at his time could see. What none of the other religions at that time or since offered humanity. He saw the truth about the actual nature of the mind and body – the nature of the different types of consciousness we can experience, the nature of thought, perception, memory, the nature of feeling, the natural laws which govern our minds functions and, the truth about the elusive nature of what we call our “self”.

And in recognising this nature of mind he also discovered a particular awareness, unseen by everyone in the noise of our mental phenomena, a unique, already liberated state which has no mental pain whatever. It is described as perfect peace and it is named nirvana in Sanskrit, or nibbana in the Pali language used in the Buddha’s time.

The Buddha having discovered the existence of nibbana for himself spent the next forty five years of his life teaching countless others the path or practice through which nibbana could be known each for himself or herself. It is a naturally existing state and is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice.

So many persons in our modern culture’s who are not socially isolated, are well educated and have affluent lifestyles frequently experience many forms of unhappiness. These include worry, stress, anxiety, insecurity, sadness, anger, frustration and depression.

Australia, for example, has one of the world’s highest rates of suicide, particularly among our youth, yet our biggest cities are regarded as being among the top twenty cities in the world to reside in. Our material standards of living are among the world’s best. Yet our mental culture appears, by these criteria, to be nothing special.

Buddhism provides the mind technology, the mind tools and methods we need to see our own mind with increasing clarity and understanding. This is the Buddhist approach to developing and maintaining a healthy mind and a good life.

Whilst we may read about Buddhism, it is not enough for us to have an intellectual understanding or even respectful appreciation of what the Buddha found out. Just like looking at food on the table will not cure us of hunger, merely appreciating Buddhist Teachings will not make us happy.

So Buddhism is sometimes referred to as a do-it-yourself religion because we need to apply the Buddha’s advice in our own life to experience any significant benefit.

So where do we start?

As we read or hear about Buddhism we need an active intention to find something worthwhile to apply in our life. And then we do apply it. We want to apply the instructions in the same way as if we have visited the Doctor and then you go straight to the Chemist so we can take the medicine quickly.

What usually happens is we forget ninety percent or more of what we read within a few days. If we forget ninety percent in a few days why bother? Applying ten percent of what was heard will not work. It’s an approach which is likely to result in only a very weak improvement. Then we may be telling others “Oh, I tried that but it doesn’t work”.

Active listening and reading is the opposite of passive reading. Passive reading means we read to “know” or find out about Buddhism through collecting up all this information about Buddhism. That’s how we have often learnt things in our past. However we won’t understand much about ourselves from listening to the Teachings of the Buddha (Buddha Dhamma) that way.

At the time we discover something new our mind has the best understanding of why we need to change our habit and adopt the new behaviour. The next day our sense of urgency to change becomes weaker, the day after less again. We are creatures of habit, our habit energy is often difficult to overcome. Our best opportunity to make a change, the best conditions to make a change is generally as soon as we understand clearly the need to change.

If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll get the same results.

The Happiness you are Looking For

The Dalai Lama has said many times that what all beings want fundamentally is to be well and happy. We did a survey of the students at a course we conducted on Buddhism to find out what they hoped to get out of the course. Most of their answers were to do with developing inner peace and happiness.

It is not that often that we meet persons who say they have developed long lasting happiness. As it is our fundamental wish to be well and happy you would think over our lifetime we would gradually get better and better at achieving that for ourselves. But it doesn’t seem to work out that way for most people.

Buddhism says you can achieve long lasting happiness for sure. Ajarn Brahm who is a well known Buddhist Monk who lives in Perth Western Australia, for example says he has found deeper and deeper levels of happiness through practicing Buddhism. In his words he says he experiences “happiness stacked on happiness stacked on happiness”.

From the Buddhist perspective the key to achieving happiness is to understand the real causes of happiness. According to Buddhism it is not a mystery at all. The process of how and why our minds experience happiness and suffering is what the Buddha found out.

In Buddhism it is taught that there are two levels of reality. The first level is named conventional reality. This is the part every one of us already has understanding about. From this level of reality comes what we know about how to create happiness for ourselves and others.

We operate successfully in the world by understanding conventional reality and building the skills and attitudes from childhood to relate to our life that way. However, it is sometimes described as a deceptive reality because apparently for most of us it is the only type of reality that exists.
But Buddhism says there is another level of reality called absolute or ultimate reality. This is the fundamental reality which is not so much to do with what appears to us to be happening from moment to moment, but more to do with why those particular things are happening, and how they happen.

Let us explain this by using the example of the Buddha when he was young, before he set out on his path to enlightenment. His name was Siddhartha. You may know that he was a Prince who lived a wonderful life in a royal palace in Northern India. Whilst his living conditions were fabulous there was still discontent in his mind. He was looking at life with concern because he could see the suffering other beings experienced.

He wondered about his life and the life of others. He was deeply affected by the things most people tend to accept as being just part of life. Such things as sickness and old age, sadness and sorrow and finally, death. He saw these things as immense burdens and difficulties which we all must meet.

His wife, father, children, in fact everyone he knew would have to face old age and death, and yet, at the same time, everybody he knew lived their life seemingly unconcerned about these things. They were unconcerned because they believed there was nothing could be done about it.

Siddhartha however could not be unconcerned. He wanted to find out why the world was like that. He wanted to know what was the truth about life? What was really going on? What caused these different sufferings to happen in unequal measures to everybody and was there any way that could be found which would stop suffering?

This is where we get back to the difference between conventional and ultimate reality. Siddhartha was asking questions which could not be answered by understanding conventional truth. He had reached the ceiling, the limit of what conventional truth could say about the world.

Even though some Siddha’s or Yogi’s did perceive further levels of understanding than conventional reality they could not provide the answers to Siddharta’s questions.

You can read about the journey Siddhartha went on for 6 years as an aesthetic, in search of what he had vowed to find out about life, and in particular to know the answers to his profound questions.

The culmination of this extraordinary quest finally came when his mind penetrated to the level of reality which produces our conventional reality. It is referred to as being an ultimate reality meaning there is nothing further, nothing higher, nothing more than this.

Not only did Buddha recognise an ultimate reality existed, he chose to spend the rest of his 45 years of life Teaching others the method by which they could experience what he had discovered for themselves.

From his perfect knowledge of both types of reality, conventional and ultimate reality, the Buddha described the engine that powers every individual’s experiences of suffering and happiness.

Buddha saw that just as there are laws of nature which operate in the physical world – the many laws we recognise through science, there are also universal laws of nature which operate in the mental world. They are the natural laws of the mind.
We are so used to understanding that the physical world operates on natural laws yet what about the mental world? Mind is also part of nature.

The Buddha saw that together physical laws and the mind laws govern the processes of life and living. From this deep wisdom the Buddha saw how individual suffering arises.

So now we come back to our own situation. The problem that arises for us and the reason we have not already developed sustained happiness in our lives is that we only have knowledge of the conventional type of reality. Our knowledge is missing fundamental parts of the process through which our happiness and unhappiness come to us.

In our times we have learned through science that horizons of what we can see are ever expanding. Back through millions of light years in time, through quantum physics we can see into the infinitesimally small dimensions of reality’s building blocks, yet all these astounding visions are in the world outside of ourselves.

Our inside world really we don’t see much at all. We see further and further outwardly, not far at all inwardly. Why do you think that is?

Our mind is all we have got to deal with the events and processes in our life. Buddhism says it is possible to understand our own mind and it is the most important thing we need to understand and develop. The quality of our moment by moment experience of life is most determined by the quality of our own mind.

There are approximately 40 volumes of Buddhist texts explaining what the Buddha found out, and the methods Buddha taught his students so they could develop their own minds to see ultimate reality directly, for themselves. How do we get a vantage point that can help us use this knowledge to move forward in our own lives?

One natural law the Buddha discovered, beyond any other, if we understand, even at an intellectual level at first, is a key to learning what Buddhist practice is all about and setting out on the Path to our own true wellbeing and happiness. This is the Law of Kamma or the law of cause and effect.

The Buddha taught that the origin of reality itself is from cause and effect. The Law of Kamma holds that every action we do intentionally, either through our body, speech and mind produces an effect that will be experienced by the doer at some time in the future. These actions we do may be:

  1. morally good, kind and helpful actions to ourselves or others – which by nature produce outcomes that are beneficial and conducive to the happiness and well being of the doer.
  2. morally neutral actions – which by nature do not contribute either positively or negatively to the well being of the doer.
  3. morally bad, unkind and harmful actions to ourselves or others – which by nature produce outcomes of harm, difficulty and unhappiness for the doer of the actions.

As some Christian teachings put it “as you sow so you will reap”.

The Law of Kamma applies not only to our physical world, but also to our mental world and is the origin of the unfolding experience of every living being.

It is described that each action we do with intention plants a seed or seeds which will fruit at some future time into an event or experience we will have.
When we actually experience the result or effect of this seed is similar to what happens in nature. If we plant a seed of a tree it does not grow up instantaneously. It is in the soil unseen by us. When the natural supporting conditions such as moisture, heat and light are right it germinates and then we see it.

So it is described in Buddhism that our kammic seeds are like the fuel for all the events and experiences we have in our lives. As we live each event and each experience we use up and exhaust some of our kammic seeds.

Our morally bad or unwholesome kammic seeds fruit when we experience hardship, sorrow and difficulty, our morally good or wholesome kammic seeds are used up when we experience such things as honour, wealth and happiness.

So Buddha’s Teachings shows us how we live our life each day, the type of actions, speech and thinking we generate are the raw ingredients, the source from which our future experience arises. All the forms and types of Buddhist practise, all the different traditions are based on this premise.

Therefore our Introduction to Buddhism course starts with this explanation about karma so each class, as we look at the different aspects of Buddhism, you can start to appreciate how and why Buddhism works and how it can work for you in your life if you choose to practice it.