The most fundamental and important aspect of human existence is not one’s beliefs, nor social status, nor intellect, nor material possessions; rather it is motives, emotions, feelings. Almost by definition it is feelings, and feelings alone, which give purpose, meaning, value and significance to our every action and encounter. Without feeling or motives there would be no incentive for one to think, speak or act; life would be chronic apathy. Yet some feelings are more rewarding, wholesome and meaningful than others. And quite often feelings (be they mental or physical) are unpleasant, empty, sorrowful, disharmonious, worrisome, irritating, frustrating or in some way of negative value; in other words, dukkha.
Thus the Buddha summarized his doctrine into the Four Noble Truths, which are:
Dukkha (i.e., suffering), in all its varied forms is an inherent and universal aspect of conscious existence.
The cause of this suffering is desire or craving. (Desire is this sense should not be confused with the simple recognition of a pleasurable or happy experience. The recognition and acceptance of such an experience is not in itself unwholesome; rather the danger arises from craving or attachment to such an experience.)
There is an end of dukkha which man can realize.
This end of suffering is achieved by means of following the Noble Eightfold Path.
However, it is not the mere attainment of a blissful existence which should motivate one towards moral behavior. On this matter the Buddha said:
“To be seized by spirits (allegorically) means living a virtuous or religious life chiefly in the hope of being born, as a result of one’s merit, in a heavenly world, as an angel, or a divine being (and this is to be avoided.)”
The Noble Eightfold Path consists of :
Right Understanding–the development and application of one’s intellectual capabilities for the sake of understanding and resolving the problems of selfishness and suffering.
Right Thought–thoughts free from lust, thoughts free from ill-will and thoughts free from cruelty.
Right Speech–to abstain from harsh language, lying and vain talk.
Right Action–to abstain from killing, stealing, intoxicating drink and sexual misconduct. (For monks complete celibacy is expected; laymen are advised to abstain from adultery or other inappropriate sexual behavior.)
Right Livelihood–the avoidance of any occupation which leads to harm or undesirable conduct such as dealing in intoxicating drinks, slavery or murder weapons.
Right Effort–the exertion of one’s will and self-discipline to develop wholesome mental states and overcome unwholesome states.
Right Mindfulness–This is probably the most important and profound aspect of Buddhist mental development and includes a variety of different meditation practices and psychological techniques. Such practices and techniques are varied according to one’s individual spiritual needs and personality structure and include developing awareness of unconscious motives and impulses.
Right Concentration–the training of the mind to remain concentrated on a single object and not wander from thought to thought.
These steps are not taken one at a time, but rather are worked on simultaneously in the maturation of one’s personality. No man finds Nirvana overnight, and to rigidly force oneself to abandon all worldly conduct before one is capable of such a step can be as undesirable as clinging to habits of excessive sensual indulgence. In the words of the Buddha:
“Just as,brethren, the mighty ocean deepens and slopes gradually down, hollow after hollow, not “Just as, plunging by a sudden precipe; even so, brethren, in this Dhamma-Discipline the training is gradual, it goes step by step; there is no sudden penetration of insight.” (Udana 54)
“By degrees, little by little, from time to time a wise man should remove his own impurities, as a smith removes the dross from silver.”