Exploring the Basic Concepts of Buddhism

*This post was originally published on October 20th, 2011

My fifth day at Samahita Yoga Thailand has just ended. It was the first rainy day since I’ve been here, and Koh Samui is just as beautiful in a thunderstorm as it is in the sunshine. One of my favorite activities here, other than the amazing yoga classes and lively discussions about Buddhist philosophy, is mealtime. Everything is made fresh daily, and the vegetables are picked from a local garden. Brunch may consist of homemade yogurt and granola, organic scrambled eggs with fresh peppers and Thai herbs, rice noodles with Thai red curry sauce, Thai spiced fish, mixed raw herbal greens with tahini dressing, homemade bread with fresh peanut butter and jam, and warm banana bread. Are you hungry yet? One item that is missing from this list, however, is coffee. Caffeinated items are not served at meals, and much to some yogis dismay, I am an avid coffee-lover. Just one or two cups in the morning will suffice, but still, it is often the first thing I look forward to when I awaken. I recall when a college boyfriend first introduced me to this tempestuously delightful beverage years ago. It was love at first sip, and although I’ve tested giving it up a few times in my life, I have never found it to make me feel more energized or healthy. In fact, I am much more joyful and balanced with my one morning cup. So, fortunately for me, I packed coffee, a French press, and chocolate covered espresso beans in my luggage.

Moving to a more serious discussion, though, I’d like to touch upon some of the Tibetan Buddhist concepts that have been explored in my afternoon lectures. The yoga portion of this class has come easily. I generally practice vinyasa style yoga daily, and Ashtanga yoga has felt very natural to me, given that vinyasa actually stemmed from the Ashtanga tradition. The Buddhist ideas, however, have at times been more challenging. There are many aspects of this philosophy that I embrace, which I will share in a moment. There are, however, concepts that do not entirely resonate with me. For instance, there is the belief that one of the primary pathways to freedom is to be rid one’s life of earthly desires and attachments, which ultimately lead to suffering. I agree that this is true that these things often can cause suffering along the way, because everything is an evolving process, and ultimately, we must learn to let go of them. However, I believe there is much more that happens. Take a child, for instance, who clings tightly to her teddy bear at night. The teddy bear gives her comfort, and she feels nurtured (and gives nurturing) by hugging the stuffed animal. These feelings come from within her. So, perhaps when the day comes when she loses the teddy bear in the grocery store, she suffers greatly from the loss of her beloved stuffed animal. But, did she not also experience great joy, love, and comfort during the process of attachment, too?  Perhaps years later, she may be able to reflect on her childhood with fond memories of this teddy bear she was so attached to, and even smile and laugh. Attachments and desires are often the catalyst in life for experiencing emotional growth and connection to other beings. So, if we always try to shun these things, do we not deprive ourselves from leading a full life? Perhaps it is when these things become obsessions that they can be damaging, but is it not equally damaging to never attach to anything?

There are other theories that challenge me to see reality from a completely different perspective. For instance, there is the Buddhist belief that reality is vacant, that it is ready to receive, and is always open to interpretation. So, let’s take a flower, for example. You may look at it and say “that is a flower,” but in reality, the flower is a creation in your mind, and language (“flower”) is applied to give it a label. Therefore, we confine what the object is through our mental creation and language. To take it one step further…what about language? Does varying linguistics in different cultures effect the interpretation of an object or idea, too? Do meanings of things change in cultures that utilize language differently, say, than the English language? The bigger concept, though, in this belief is that the flower is really a process. It changes every day, until it reaches its inevitable death. It is not a fixed “thing” as we humans label it and perceive it to be. We do this with objects in life every day, but the Buddhist belief is that we are not seeing any of it as it truly is when we add language and labels.

The Four Noble Truths

Many have heard of this concept that is fundamental to Buddhist beliefs. The four noble truths are:

Life is suffering
The origin of suffering is attachment
The cessation of suffering is attainable
The path to freedom is the cessation of suffering
Well, let’s face it. This outlook is rather dismal. Personally, I’d like to think there is much more to life than suffering. I was recently told by a Thai person that Buddhists believe that from the moment we take our first breath, we are already dying, but we are also experiencing life in this present human form for the first time, too. Another Buddhist told me that the four noble truths teach us to “grow up” and look at life realistically. Perhaps I enjoy my rose-colored glasses on occasion (I really do have a pair). I enjoy maintaining the magical spirit of youth and wonderment, even as I age. I don’t necessarily want to grow up…at least not entirely. So, I’ve even had struggles with these basic concepts.

In this week’s course, Dr. Neale presented a contemporary rendition of the concept of the cycle of suffering, as well as and the cycle to freedom. As with anything, ideas and concepts must evolve in their explanations to fit the understanding of current worldviews. This modern interpretation is used as an educational tool for the Dalai Lama when he travels the world to teach his wisdom.  For me personally, any quote or writing authored by the Dalai Lama that I’ve read has been anything but dismal. He has repeatedly been a great teacher and source of inspiration not only to me, but to most people I’ve spoken to who have read his works. I found this contemporary interpretation of the Buddhist concept of suffering to be incredibly helpful, and even inspiring. It completely reversed my prior negative feelings toward the idea.

The belief is that the cycle of suffering begins with something called Avidya, which means “misperception.” It states that we often don’t see reality in a situation clearly because of our pre-disposition to perceive things based on our pasts. This may be related to childhood, upbringing, interaction with peers, etc. Out of Avidya we cycle into something called Klesha, which means “afflictive emotions,” which are the feelings that are generated from our distorted perception. This could generate, depending on the situation, as feelings of anger, abandonment, vulnerability, etc. From Klesha, we cycle into what we call “reactive action,” which is the knee-jerk response we often have to our emotions (e.g. – outburst of anger or defensiveness), which ultimately leads to Samsara, which means “compulsive life,” which states that we become a slave to our condition of the distorted perceptions. So, the cycle of freedom lays in the ability to develop the wisdom (Prajna) to break free from this cycle by recognizing that it makes us a slave to our suffering. We have the ability to change our perception, or at least take a step back and wait before reacting to our perceptions, to gain understanding of the bigger picture. The concept also states that there is not a “you” that is fixed. For example, many of us may hold the belief that “that’s the way I am,” or “that’s the way he is.” This teaching states that such perceptions are not true. We are not “that way,” but rather, we are a collection of habits. Habits can be changed. Buddhism teaches that we are responsible for ourselves to make these changes through wisdom and awareness. Meditation can be used as a tool to heighten our ability to clear our minds, be in the moment, and recognize our full potential, rather than being fixed on a belief that things are a certain way. Just like the flower, we aren’t labels. The Buddhist belief system states that such labels confine us. It is like putting a picture frame around oneself, and only existing within the parameters of the frame. We can break free of the frame.

Personally, I find this to be a much more liberating view of the idea of what suffering means, and how we can come closer to freedom from it. In fact, this interpretation allowed me to break out of my own frame regarding my feelings toward the Buddhist concept of suffering.

What are your thoughts about these concepts?

9 Responses to Exploring the Basic Concepts of Buddhism
Joie says:
October 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm

In the past few years I have been learning so much about myself and what I believe is true in life. I have taken religion classes, not that I am close to being religious, but to learn MORE…More about the concepts and realities that people hold so close. I explored into Buddhism, and like you, was a little taken back by their ideas of what suffering is and the “matter of fact” style of conforming to it. I still don’t understand it to be honest. What I do know and agree with is that life IS full of a series of habits and can ALWAYS change. I have been talking to an old friend recently who is going through some tough times. He told me that he regrets never reaching out sooner in life and thanked me for listening. My response to him was not to regret a thing, because we have this moment and every moment after it! (That’s a lot of time!) My point is that there is always room for growth, change, acceptance, empathy, love…That’s the great thing about mistakes, there is always the moments after that you can use to learn from them and move on. I love making mistakes because it makes me more generally aware. And being aware is a beautiful thing. I’m aware of my awareness! And I’m always attempting to break free of my frame as well. It’s not always easy, but I am NOT suffering in my skin. I feel free to see reality however I wish to see it. In the meantime I am trying to positively affect the people in my life and share my perspective. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You continue to have tremendous effects on shaping my worldview and introducing new ways to see things!


Amy Warcup says:
October 22, 2011 at 4:02 pm
I love that you wrote your insight and feedback, Joie! Yes, every moment is a new opportunity. If we can remember that even in our darkest moments, then we really are free.

Jamie says:
October 20, 2011 at 5:00 pm
One of my most treasured quotes from my yoga training comes from the Introduction (written by Juan Mascaro) to the version of the Bhagavad Gita I read: “Every moment of our life can be the beginning of great things.” One of the reasons I love it is that I have a terrible memory for quotes, song lyrics, etc., but these few words have actually resonated strongly enough to stick around in my brain. More importantly, I think it speaks to the positive and uplifting nature of the concept of attachment (or lack thereof). I see great permission and freedom through the lens of these words; that even when we make mistakes, we constantly have new opportunities.

Thank you for thoughtful post and for inviting discussion. I look forward to reading more about your studies! ~ Jamie

Amy Warcup says:
October 22, 2011 at 4:03 pm
Thanks for sharing, Jamie. I’ll have to find that introduction written by Juan Mascaro. I don’t think I’ve read it yet.

Carol Hankin says:
October 25, 2011 at 4:20 pm
I so enjoyed reading your thoughts and interpretations!

Laura Moran says:
October 25, 2011 at 8:23 pm
I really like the 4 noble truths you outlined. It makes sense and shows you that although you may be suffering in life, you can attain freedom from it. Very cool message outlined in 4 simple points.
I am also interested in how your cup of coffee tasted made from the chocolate covered coffee beans in the French Press. If your versatility in achieving your cup of morning java is not an example of detachment to avoid suffering I don’t what is!
Miss you deperately, but so enjoying reading about your experiences!

Colleen says:
October 28, 2011 at 1:18 am
Enlightening material. I am deep in thought. The concepts here are ones that have really been coming to light for me over the last year.



The Sects of Buddhism

*This post was originally published on October 17th, 2011

Today, I am going to offer a very brief overview about Buddhism, since I am currently in a predominantly Buddhist country and studying Buddhist theories at Samahita. Included are some images of the Buddha from my recent visit to the Big Buddha Temple in Koh Samui. I will preface this by sharing that I am by no means a scholar of Buddhism or biased toward any particular sect. Rather, I enjoy studying Eastern philosophy, and integrating various Eastern theories into my daily Western lifestyle. I believe there is much to be learned from some of these ancient teachings that may benefit us in a society that is so often disconnected from inner sources of consciousness.

Many people in the West have some familiarity with Buddhism, and a growing number are studying Buddhist teaching. Some refer to themselves as Buddhists.  There are also, however, several misconceptions in the West about Buddhism, such as that Buddhists do not believe in the existence of a material reality, or that they worship statues. Both of these perceptions are untrue. So, what is Buddhism? This is a huge topic, but let’s begin by taking a look at who the Buddha was.

A (brief) story of the life of Buddha

The original Buddha’s name was Siddhartha Gautama. We have documentation that Siddhartha lived around 543 BCE, although the exact span of his life is somewhat elusive. He was born in Lumbini, which is in modern-day Nepal, and he was the son of King Suddhodana. It was customary at the time for royalty to bring in revered “advisors” or teachers who would offer futuristic premonitions to parents after the birth of a child. It is said that Siddhartha’s father brought in 107 advisors, who all claimed that the infant would grow to be a great monarch. However, the 108th advisor that visited said that he would not become a monarch at all, but rather, will be a great spiritual leader. Siddhartha’s father feared his son becoming a spiritual leader, which typically meant that he would live in poverty (as most spiritual people of the time did). In attempt to prevent his son from living this lifestyle, he raised him in a sheltered environment within his kingdom, surrounding him with great riches, baths of beautiful women, and lessons with the greatest teachers. As Siddhartha grew into manhood, however, he became increasingly aware of his sheltered life and craved to see the outside world. At age thirty, he left the palace. In the outside world, he saw much suffering, such as disease, poverty, violence, and destitution. This realization was shocking to him, and he decided to renounce all of his worldly possessions in exchange for a life of simplicity. Along his travels, he saw a sage-like character and decided to live like him and dedicate his life to ending suffering. After six years travelling, Siddhartha concluded that attachment is the root cause of suffering in a life that is ever-changing and impermanent. In the succeeding centuries, his teachings were written in forty-five books of scriptures. Buddha literally means ‘a being that is beyond this body.’ Siddhartha received this prestigious title many decades after his death.

The sects of Buddhism

As with most religious and spiritual practices, there are various sects that developed over time in different cultures. This is the case with Buddhism. Although there are hundreds of varying “styles” of Buddhism, most fall under two primary categories: Theravada and Mahayana.

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is the oldest sect, and began to spread around various areas of Southeast Asia around 200 BCE. Theravada literally means “the way of the elders.” The beliefs were developed based upon the Pali Cannon texts, which were written between 400-100 BCE in Sri Lanka. Theravada Buddhism primarily focuses on the life of the original Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) and his teachings. This sect of Buddhism does not worship any deities, nor does it view the Buddha himself as being a god. Some consider this sect to be as much of a philosophy as a religion, because it is an atheistic belief system that honors the Buddha as the greatest and most venerated teacher who has lived. A strong emphasis in this sect is placed on renunciation. To free oneself of suffering, it is believed that one must give up earthly attachments and care for all living beings with respect. Theravada Buddhism is most commonly practiced today in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia.

Mahayana Buddhism

This sect emerged out of Theravada Buddhism around 200 ACE, and is documented in Sanskrit scriptures. Mahayana (meaning “the greater vehicle”) is the most widespread sect that is practiced in the world today. The primary sub-sects of Mahayana are Zen (or Chan in China) and Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana). Siddhartha Gautama is revered as the original Buddha, but in the Mahayana belief system, many other Buddhas are celebrated as well, such as Amhitabha. Bodhisattvas are also honored. Bodhisattvas are considered enlightened beings who have renounced their Buddhahood to teach the path to freedom to beings on earth. There are dozens of Bodhisattvas that are honored in the Mahayana sect (although the term originated in the Theravada lineage, referring to the original Buddha). Emphasis is placed on wisdom and compassion. From this view, one does not necessarily need to renunciate anything, but should understand suffering and look at it clearly and realistically to break the cycle and find freedom. Mahayana teaches that humans have the ability to be enlightened both in this lifetime, as well as in succeeding lives. A strong emphasis is placed on karma. This sect of Buddhism is primary practiced in China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Bhutan, Singapore, and Mongolia.

Vajrayana Buddhism is a sub-sect of Mahayana that developed later, around the 8th century ACE, and traveled from India to Tibet and areas of Nepal. Many call this Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayana means “thunderbolt vehicle,’ or “diamond vehicle.” This sub-sect teaches that we do not necessarily need many lifetimes to reach nirvana, but rather, that we have everything we need in one lifetime to break the cycle of suffering and seek the wisdom to the path to freedom. Some call this form of Buddhism the “short path.”

So, this is my very brief overview of the primary sects of Buddhism. In Thailand, there is great importance placed on the day of the week one was born, and there is a different Buddha statue for each day of the week. Given that it is very late Monday evening here in Koh Samui, I am feeling rather like the Tuesday Buddha, which is the reclining Buddha…and, it will be Tuesday very soon. So, until next time, may you have enlightened days and blissfully reclining nights! Sa-wa-dee-ka.