Saturday, June 23, 2012

Lessons from The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings

The challenge with a book like The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh is that, unlike some of the other books I am reading, this book is basically an introductory educational course on Buddhism from the perspective of this specific famous Zen Buddhist.  As an introductory book, it's exactly what I need to be reading right now.  But in my position to be blogging about the insights I am gaining from this book, there is a feeling that the posts I am writing as I read this book will feel too much like a lecture.  Even more concerning is that the posts might end up with me lecturing on subjects I am still learning about, which leaves me with very little authority with which to back up my statements.  So, I have decided to share with you the condensed and edited notes I am taking from these books, almost like notes from a class you were absent for.  I am hoping that in this guise, these blog posts will be useful to us both.

As always, Nhat Hanh's work is an easy read.  Even as he engages difficult subject matter, his word choices and the clarity of his voice provides easy access to complex topics.  He starts with the basic tenants of Buddhism.

Following the biographical story of Siddhartha Gautama's successful search for enlightenment, the Buddha returns to the five ascetics that he practiced with prior to going out on his own.  He had to find a way to translate his own realizations into something he could teach others and this is what he came up with:

The Four Noble Truths
  1. Suffering Exists - It is important to look at the truth of our lives and fully see the suffering of our bodies and our minds.  Recognizing how we are suffering may take time and require the assistance of spiritual teachers.
  2. Discover the Origin of Your Suffering - Once discovered, we must understand our suffering including how it originated, how we are helping it to perpetuate, and how it is connected to other kinds of suffering in ourselves and others.
  3. Recognizing that We Can Cause the Suffering to Cease - The good news of this third noble truth is that there is hope!  We can take actions to cause an end to our suffering.  This is especially true as our own perspective has such a heavy influence on how painful and difficult life events can be.  If we can find ways to shift our perspectives, we can ease our own suffering.
  4. The Noble Eightfold Path - This last Noble Truth answers the questions, "But how do I end my suffering?  What actions can I take to alleviate this pain?"
The Noble Eightfold Path - These eight practices nourish each other.  As we practice them, we strengthen our other skill sets.  I have given a small definition here, but these practices are discussed in much deeper detail in separate blog posts, which are available by clicking on their titles.
  1. Right View - aka Nourishing Understanding is the ability to see clearly and recognize how our own perceptions impact our understanding of the world and ourselves.
  2. Right Thinking  - aka Nourishing Thinking is the ability to focus your thoughts to reflect Nourishing Understanding.  Nourishing Thinking keeps you in the moment and away from your projections and assumptions.
  3. Right Speech - aka Nourishing Speech is about choosing your words carefully, learning how to listen deeply to others, and learning when to be silent.
  4. Right Action - aka Nourishing Action is comprised of several different approaches to correction the actions you take in the world.  For TNH, these include actions that show reverence for life, generosity, sexual responsibility, and mindfulness about our consumption.
  5. Right Livelihood - aka Nourishing Work is work that reflects our beliefs and ideals.  Nourishing Work is also work that does not in any way perpetuate the suffering of people, animals, plants, or the earth.
  6. Right Diligence - aka Nourishing Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness - aka Nourishing Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration - aka Nourishing Concentration is a practice that reflects our ability to focus our minds.  Separated into active concentration and selective concentration, Nourishing Concentration cultivates our ability to reside mentally in joyful spaces.
*As a side note, TNH makes a note to discuss the use of the word "Right" as not a moral rightness, but a right vs. wrong compared to beneficial vs. non-beneficial or healthy vs. unhealthy.  So it could just as easily be "Beneficial Livelihood" or "Healthy Speech".  After some thought, I think I will use the word "Nourishing" to reflect actions that support the continued growth of my spirit.