The essence of the Buddha's
teaching or dharma is conceptually straight forward. The dharma
is an instruction manual designed to help us find a path out of
suffering. This is an aim it shares with western psychotherapy.
The dharma begins with
a recognition that suffering exists. The first noble truth is that
living means experiencing dukkha - a Sanskrit word encompassing
the concepts of suffering, discontent, dissatisfaction, discomfort,
restlessness, unfulfilled desire and fear. (McClain & Adamson, 2001:
However, it is not good
enough to merely acknowledge the existence of this suffering on
some conceptual or intellectual level, for the dharma always requires
an active human response. Each noble truth "requires being acted
upon in its own particular way" (Batchelor, 1997: 4). The first
noble truth also advises us to understand this dukkha, suffering
Now, usually we seek
only to avoid or remove such suffering - not to understand it. In
this sense a large component of all such suffering remains unconscious
or outside of our awareness. We are restless or unhappy. We know
that we feel this way but seldom ask ourselves just why this specific
feeling or emotion has come upon us? We do not seek to own these
feelings. Rather, they seize us from 'without', outside our conscious
awareness, and carry us along with them.
Buddhists say that letting
go of suffering requires us to firstly admit dukkha into consciousness
(Sumedho). This seems not so far from Freud's stated therapeutic
aim 'where id is, there shall ego be'. What is different is the
concept of consciousness, or rather of the core of conscious awareness
westerners call ego.
While western psychology
generally assumes that each person has an individual ego or personal
core that needs to be strengthened in order to overcome adversity,
Buddhist thought takes a different view. From its perspective, this
view that we each have a somewhat unchanging personal core is a
tendency to be avoided. In between the extremes of being and nonbeing
- of seeing ourselves as either somebody or, alternatively, as no
body - lies the Buddha's middle way (Epstein, 2001: 10-11).
It seems to me that the
dukkha the Buddha seeks to overcome is predicated by our human tendency
to view ourselves as separate or unique individuals with, most importantly,
an unchanging core of identity that is 'me'. This unchanging core
notion is highly susceptible to self-centred thinking and feeling,
to turning everything 'personal'. So, all matters of dukkha (lose,
pain, boredom, and so on) are highly susceptible to being taken
personally, as it were.
To quote from Sumedho,
"The insight [of the first noble truth] is simply the acknowledgement
that there is this suffering without making it personal. That acknowledgement
is an important insight; just looking at mental anguish or physical
pain and seeing it as dukkha rather than as personal misery - just
seeing it as dukkha and not reacting to it in a personal way. …
what we are looking at is not that suffering which comes from out
there, but what we create in our own minds around it. … it is no
longer blaming the suffering that we are experiencing on others."
This is a useful insight
for western healers also to start from.
second noble truth - letting go of the origins of anguish
The Buddha's first insight
or Noble Truth is that anguish or suffering exists and is to be
understood or admitted into consciousness rather than being avoided
Following on, his second
insight is that the origins of anguish lie in desire or craving
- more particularly, in our human tendency to evade "the unadorned
immediacy of life" via excursions "into tawdry and tiresome elaborations
of past and future." (Batchelor 1997: 25)
We are dissatisfied with
how things are. We want things we don't have or wish things were
different - we desire sensual pleasures (food, sex, beautiful possessions)
or desire to be different (wealthy, famous, successful) or to be
rid of something unpleasant (suffering, fear, anxiety).
The Buddha counsels us
to achieve real happiness by letting go of these self-centred cravings
and living in the immediacy of the present moment. The letting go
of a craving, however, does not mean rejecting it "but allowing
it to be itself: a contingent state of mind that once arisen will
pass away. … As with understanding anguish, the challenge in letting
go of craving is to act before habitual reactions incapacitate us."
This distinction is important.
The cause of suffering is not desire itself but the grasping of
our desires. "Grasping means being deluded by [suffering], thinking
it's really 'me' and 'mine'. … Desire is not what we are but it
is the way we tend to react out of ignorance when we have not understood
these Four Noble Truths in their three aspects." (Sumedho 2005)
It's as if we arrive
into this world with a clean slate or Buddha nature, but in a state
of original ignorance. This original state of 'purity' or 'emptiness'
is not able to be realised by the unconscious child and so we develop
over time by filling up our emptiness with cravings for things.
Eventually, we accumulate so much psychological 'stuff' or cravings
that we forget entirely that we began in a pure void.
What motivates us to
grasp at desires and strive so hard to fill up our emptiness? How
should we approach emptiness?
Epstein (1998) draws
a distinction between Western and Buddhist approaches to emptiness.
He notes that "Like their patients, psychotherapists were intimidated
by emptiness … Western psychotherapists are trained to understand
a report of emptiness as indicative of a deficiency in someone's
emotional upbringing, a defect in character, a defense against overwhelming
feelings of aggression, or as a stand-in for feelings of inadequacy.
… Psychotherapy was holding out for a cure … The problem with the
Western experience of emptiness was that it was mixed with so much
fear. … We must learn how to be with our feelings of emptiness without
rushing to change them." (pp 14-15, 26)
Goleman (1991) draws
the same distinction when comparing Tibetan Buddhism and western
psychotherapy. "But the telling difference is in the methods, the
means to mental health that exist in each system. … By and large,
psychotherapy focuses on the content of consciousness. It does not
attempt the more radical transformation posited in the Tibetan Buddhist
approach, which focuses on the process of consciousness." (p 100)
There would seem to be
fruitful scope for psychoanalysts to focus more on the processes
- not just the content - of consciousness, and explore the impact
of fear in particular.
third noble truth - realising the end of suffering
The Buddha's third Noble
Truth counsels us to realise the cessation of suffering. We can
eliminate dukkha (suffering/discontent) by eliminating our craving
for and clinging to the "ten thousand things" we forever desire.
The Buddha tells us that
all things exist in a constant process of change. Material
forms, relationships and situations, subjective thoughts and emotions
continually arise and cease. (As I understand quantum physics, at
the subatomic level particles of matter itself come into being and
then just as mysteriously cease to be.) Life is a change process.
The way to lasting happiness and peace is to "go with the flow"
it seems. Naturally, this is easier said than done.
Our attachments have
different qualities and strengths. Some cravings pass relatively
quickly but at other times we can cling to something so tenaciously
that we can't even contemplate losing it or failing to achieve it.
What drives us to cling to desires so desperately sometimes? Is
it the ego personality that clings so hard, or are these cravings
Clearly, sometimes people
seem all too conscious of what they want and we see them pursue
their cravings quite ruthlessly. The ego wants what the ego wants.
Cravings seem to spring fully-blown from our ego consciousness.
I see a new car and I want one. I see a beautiful person and I want
them. This wanting can cause immense personal suffering, or it can
be avoided entirely if we consciously choose to cease our desperate
But is it just as straightforward
as this? Desires themselves are not problems. Indeed, they seem
to be natural components of our human existence. It is only our
attachment to them that causes suffering for all objects of desire
are temporal and just as they come into being so they will eventually
cease to be. So why is it so hard sometimes to relinquish our attachment
to various fleeting objects of desire and just let things be?
While our ego concept
persists in its illusion that we are a permanently unchanging 'me'
or 'I' at core, it has a great stake in accumulating to itself more
and more 'possessions' or 'ego enhancements', more socially desirable
attributes, to help it get what it wants in life, for we operate
consciously as if we will continue to walk this Earth forever, and
forever is a long, long time. (This is the great appeal for many
of a law degree, membership in a fitness club and a rising real
Our ego consciousness
operates within its illusion of permanency. If we are permanent,
then all other things just possibly might likewise endure indefinitely,
and so it makes sense to want them for our own purposes. Otherwise,
to admit our impermanence is to open to a changing world, where
others are not here primarily to serve our own ends. This can be
I recall Jung saying
it is rational to be neurotic since life is so unpredictable. From
this view, it makes perfect sense to remain attached to our various
neuroses in order to avoid having to deal with life as it really
is. Neurosis, craving, clinging - all are self-centred activities.
Centring on our selves is a key strategy for avoidance of our fear
of ceasing to be.
If we can bear the really
hard work of admitting our craving for permanence and its accompanying
fear fully into our consciousness, we can then bear to allow things
to cease to be, and "When you have let something go and allowed
it to cease, then what is left is peace" (Sumedho). Our challenge
is to lighten up and be en-lightened, so to speak.
fourth noble truth - the eight fold path
The Buddha's fourth Noble
Truth - the eight fold path - is his instruction manual to end the
suffering arising out of our attachment to fleeting desires.
The eight fold path to
liberation from suffering emphasises training in three essential
Buddhist values - wisdom, ethics and meditative awareness.
Wisdom training (right
view, right intentions) is designed to let us see things as they
are. This is important "because your worldview determines the direction
your life will take". (Lama Surya Das, 1997: 96)
Ethics training (right
speech, right action, right livelihood) "shows us how - through
mindful attention and nonattachment - to make our daily lives sacred
by practising ethical restraint, morality, and sincere virtue in
all that we do. It is not enough to think wisely; we must also speak,
act, work, and love wisely." (pp 167-168)
Meditation training (right
effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) focuses upon "the
intentional cultivation of mindful awareness and pure attention
- an alert, wakeful presence of mind." (p260)
We come into being and,
for the most part, live, think and act as if we are immortal. Our
ego consciousness views itself as a permanent, fixed identity. We
don't naturally want to admit into our consciousness that we will
die one day. Death is the greatest threat to our ego and so we develop
many strategies centring upon ourselves in order to avoiding our
fear of eventually ceasing to be. Such strategies will, Buddhism
teaches, be bound to fail.
Sometimes when desires
arise, our ego consciousness - the illusory unchanging 'I' or 'me'
- grasps and clings to them tenaciously, fearfully. We incline to
taking the easy way out by developing neurotic attachments to certain
patterns of thought and behaviour that allow us to avoid dealing
with the biggest issues - death ultimately, but often also how best
we might live our lives in every moment.
The eight fold path can
help us overcome our neurotic attachments. A focus upon our real
place in the world is very confronting. We are not the centre of
the universe and all things do not exist to serve our needs.
Wisdom training can help
us to see this and help us centre ourselves naturally and realistically
in this experience called life, rather than proceeding though a
world of illusion with a skewed centre revolving around our ego's
Training in meditative
awareness complements wisdom and ethics training by shoring up our
energy for whatever trials and tasks we face.
When we have a realistic
worldview, it follows naturally that other people will be viewed
and treated differently, more respectfully. When the ego is dethroned
somewhat, the connections between us and them are more obvious.
Ethical training is relevant to developing and maintaining relationships
The neurotic suffering
self, whether aware of its attachments or unconscious of them, is
overly focussed upon its false centre. When it's not relating with
others, who does our constantly chattering mind dialogue with? It's
as if our consciousness was the big screen on the wall in the NASA
control room, projecting various thoughts so all parts of our mind/brain
(personal unconscious, complexes, left brain, right brain, lizard
brain etc) can more easily relate to the other parts. So whatever
path our awareness is actually focussed upon is very important.
Batchelor, Stephen, Buddhism
Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, Riverhead
Books, New York, 1997.
Epstein, Mark, Going
on being: Buddhism and the way of change: a positive psychology
for the West, Broadway Books, New York, 2001.
Epstein, Mark, Going
to pieces without falling apart: a Buddhist perspective on wholeness,
Broadway Books, New York, 1998.
Goleman, Daniel, "Tibetan
and Western Models of Mental Health" in Goleman, Daniel & Robert
A F Thurman, editors, MindScience: An East-West Dialogue,
Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1991, pages 89-102.
McClain, Gary R and Eve
Adamson, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living, Alpha
Books, Indianapolis USA, 2001.
Sumedho, Ajahn, The
Four Noble Truths, Amaravarti, Hemel Hempstead, England (http://www.buddhanet.net/4noble.htm).
Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha within: eight steps to enlightenment:
Tibetan wisdom for the Western world, Broadway Books, New York,