Refuge – An Introduction to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha

Continuing the Buddhist course here I decided to take some notes that will come in handy for me in the future.

Buddhism originated in northern India.

It started with Siddhartha Gautama and the search for the Dharma (the Truth).

Those who set out to live as the Buddha taught are called the Sangha.

As early as the first century the tradition began to travel over the Silk Road into West and Central Asia, and by the eighth century Buddhism was well established in China, Korea and Japan.

Just as the Buddha said about his long career of teaching, “Both formally, and now, it is only suffering and the stopping of suffering that I describe.”

Below is a synthesis from this link. This is the essence I’m deeply interested in.

“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two… five, ten… fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion”.

I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’

‘I will purify my bodily acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my verbal acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my mental acts through repeated reflection.’ Thus you should train yourself.

These five things are welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world. Which five? Long life… beauty… pleasure… status… rebirth in heaven… Now, I tell you, these five things are not to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes. If they were to be obtained by reason of prayers or wishes, who here would lack them? It is not fitting for the noble disciple who desires long life to pray for it or to delight in doing so. Instead, the noble disciple who desires long life should follow the path of practice leading to long life. In so doing, he will attain long life, either human or divine. (Similarly with beauty, pleasure, status, and rebirth in heaven.)

Monks, what is the noble eightfold path? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

And what is right view? Knowledge with regard to stress, knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the cessation of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: This is called right view.

And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve.

And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.

And what is right action? Abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and from unchastity. This is called right action.

And what is right livelihood? There is the case where a noble disciple, having abandoned dishonest livelihood, keeps his life going with right livelihood: This is called right livelihood.

And what is right effort? There is the case where a monk generates desire, endeavors, arouses persistence, upholds and exerts his intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen… for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen… for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen…(and) for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, and culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen: This is called right effort.

And what is right mindfulness? There is the case where a monk remains focused on the body in and of itself — ardent, alert, and mindful — putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves… the mind in and of itself… mental qualities in and of themselves — ardent, alert, and mindful — putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. This is called right mindfulness.

And what is right concentration? There is the case where a monk… enters and remains in the first jhana… the second jhana… the third jhana… the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. This is called right concentration.

The Awakening lets us see that the choices we make in each moment of our lives have consequences. The fact that we are empowered also means that we are responsible for our experiences. We are not strangers in a strange land. We have formed and are continuing to form the world we experience.

The Awakening also tells us that good and bad are not mere social conventions, but are built into the mechanics of how the world is constructed. We may be free to design our lives, but we are not free to change the underlying rules that determine what good and bad actions are, and how the process of kamma works itself out.

Even for those who are not ready to make that kind of investment, the Awakening assures us that happiness comes from developing qualities within ourselves that we can be proud of, such as kindness, sensitivity, equanimity, mindfulness, conviction, determination, and discernment. Again, this is a very different message from the one we pick up from the world telling us that in order to gain happiness we have to develop qualities we can’t take any genuine pride in: aggressiveness, self-aggrandizement, dishonesty, etc.

You’ve probably heard the rumor that Buddhism is pessimistic, that “Life is suffering” is the Buddha’s first noble truth. It’s a rumor with good credentials, spread by well-respected academics and meditation teachers alike, but a rumor nonetheless. The real truth about the noble truths is far more interesting. The Buddha taught four truths — not one — about life: There is suffering, there is a cause for suffering, there is an end of suffering, and there is a path of practice that puts an end to suffering. These truths, taken as a whole, are far from pessimistic. They’re a practical, problem-solving approach — the way a doctor approaches an illness, or a mechanic a faulty engine. You identify a problem and look for its cause. You then put an end to the problem by eliminating the cause.

One of the first stumbling blocks that Westerners often encounter when they learn about Buddhism is the teaching on anatta, often translated as no-self. This teaching is a stumbling block for two reasons. First, the idea of there being no self doesn’t fit well with other Buddhist teachings, such as the doctrine of kamma and rebirth: If there’s no self, what experiences the results of kamma and takes rebirth? Second, it doesn’t fit well with our own Judeo-Christian background, which assumes the existence of an eternal soul or self as a basic presupposition: If there’s no self, what’s the purpose of a spiritual life? Many books try to answer these questions, but if you look at the Pali canon — the earliest extant record of the Buddha’s teachings — you won’t find them addressed at all. In fact, the one place where the Buddha was asked point-blank whether or not there was a self, he refused to answer. When later asked why, he said that to hold either that there is a self or that there is no self is to fall into extreme forms of wrong view that make the path of Buddhist practice impossible. Thus the question should be put aside.

According to the Buddhist monastic code, monks and nuns are not allowed to accept money or even to engage in barter or trade with lay people. They live entirely in an economy of gifts. Lay supporters provide gifts of material requisites for the monastics, while the monastics provide their supporters with the gift of the teaching. Ideally — and to a great extent in actual practice — this is an exchange that comes from the heart, something totally voluntary.

The most basic lesson he learned was that mental skills can be developed. As one of the Pali discourses notes, he found that thoughts imbued with passion, aversion, and delusion were harmful; thoughts devoid of these qualities were not harmful; and he could shepherd his thoughts in such a way to avoid harm.

For example, generosity covers not only the giving of material gifts, but also generosity with one’s time, knowledge, gratitude, and forgiveness. Virtue begins with the five precepts — against killing, stealing, illicit sex, lying, and taking intoxicants — includes prohibitions against five forms of wrong livelihood — selling slaves, intoxicants, poisons, weapons, and animals to be killed for food — and goes on to cover abstention from all forms of harmful behavior. Thus good behavior, taken under the categories of generosity and virtue, means both refraining from harmful behavior and performing actions that are beneficial.

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