Basic Buddhist Teachings and Practices
The teachings of the Buddha are vast, but there are a few basic Buddhist teachings and practices that are fundamental to the path laid out. Although all of the teachings offer us an understanding of the tradition, here are a few that are at the core of Buddhism. We are offering a very brief overview of each teaching, so feel free to click on the links to read more about each of these principles and practices. You can also check out our page on Buddhist symbols to learn more about art and symbols in Buddhism.
The Four Noble Truths are one of the most foundational Buddhist teachings. Often believed to be one of the Buddha’s first teachings, it offers perspective on the core beliefs of Buddhism. In essence, the Buddha offered this teaching to describe the problem and the solution.
1. There is Dukkha
The first truth is that there is dukkha. We often translate dukkha into English as suffering, but a more appropriate word may be stress, dissatisfaction, or dis-ease. The Buddha points here that part of life is experiencing discomfort. There are many ways this arises, from physical pains and aging to psychological discomfort and anxiety. With this truth, we are to look at our dukkha, familiarize ourselves with the experience, and know it intimately when it arises.
2. There is a Cause of Dukkha
The second truth is that there is a cause to our stress. Traditionally, these causes are ignorance and craving. We crave for more pleasant experiences and to be away from unpleasant ones, and we are ignorant about the way our world and experience work. We can look closely at the experience of suffering and see the causes arise. With this truth, we address not just dukkha, but the underlying causes as well.
3. There is Cessation of Dukkha
The third truth points out that the cessation of dukkha is possible. Specifically, it is through non-clinging and wisdom that we can end the cycle of suffering. This is a practice in non-clinging, or letting go. We are to know that with non-clinging, we can free ourselves from dis-ease. This can happen in little moments, and we can tune into the experience of letting go.
4. The Path to Cessation of Dukkha
The fourth truth is the path to ending suffering, or the Noble Eightfold Path. This is a bit like a prescription. The Buddha offered the Eightfold Path as the steps we take toward ending suffering.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eigthfold Path is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, and offers eight factors for us to cultivate in order to liberate ourselves from suffering. Although they are often listed in order, they are not to be cultivated in a linear fashion. Rather, we cultivate them together, especially as many are connected to other factors.
- Wise View
Wise View is the first factor on the path, and is the cultivation of seeing things clearly as they are. One important piece of this factor is understanding the three marks of existence.
- Wise Intention
Wise Intention is the cultivation of wholesome intentions. Traditionally, this factor refers to the intention of renunciation and non-harming. As laypeople, we can still undertake the practice of renouncing craving and clinging, and of not causing harm.
- Wise Speech
Wise speech is the practice of speaking in a way that promotes liberation. For monastics, this means speaking only when necessary, in a kind way, in a way that is truthful, and in a way that is truly useful. As laypeople, we can watch out for idle chatter, harsh words, lies, and gossiping.
- Wise Action
Wise action is relatively easy to understand. This factor is the one in which we use our bodies skillfully to create liberation rather than perpetuate suffering in the world. We act in a way that does not cause harm to ourselves or others.
- Wise Livelihood
Wise Livelihood is the practice of earning a living in a wholesome way. This means we steer clear of business which encourages suffering such as selling meat, dealing in weapons, or encourages clinging. It also is an instruction to investigate our relationship to money.
- Wise Effort
Wise effort is the cultivation of a wise effort in and out of meditation practice. Traditionally it refers to the effort exerted to cultivate wholesome qualities and keep unwholesome qualities down, but we can also look at the effort we put forth in our daily lives.
- Wise Mindfulness
Wise mindfulness is the cultivation of mindfulness, or sati. This is traditionally done through clearly understanding the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
- Wise Concentration
Wise concentration is the cultivation of a concentrated and settled mind, and refers traditionally to the jhanas, or states of meditative absorption.
The Triple Gem, or Three Jewels, are the three things toward which we turn to take refuge. They provide the support in our practice, a safe haven, and an ever-present truth.
The first of the refuges is the Buddha. This may be understood by some traditions to mean the historical Buddha, but it generally refers to the inherent Buddha-seed we all have within us. We can turn toward our Buddha-nature and trust in our capacity for wisdom, mindfulness, and care.
The Pali word dhamma (or dharma in Sanksrit) is a complicated word. Here it refers to the path and teachings of the Buddha. We can take refuge in the path laid out before us, indicating the path toward ending suffering.
Sangha is a Pali word referring to the community. Although it traditionally referred to the community of monastics, it may be understood to mean the broader community of fellow meditators.
The Five Precepts
The Five Precepts are training rules that Buddhists have taken for over 2500 years. They are offered as a way to keep the community safe, and as a practice for ourselves in ethical conduct. We may look at the precepts as a way to practice wise action and wise speech in our lives and interactions with others. The Five Precepts are:
- To refrain from harming living things
- To refrain from taking that which is not freely offered
- To be wise with our sexuality
- To refrain from false speech
- To refrain from drugs and alcohol
The Four Brahma-Viharas are four practices of the heart in Buddhism. The term brahma-vihara is Pali and means “heavenly abodes.” These qualities are important to cultivate in our path, both in and out of formal meditation practice.
Metta is the first heart practice, and is often translated as loving-kindness. We often use the term “gentle friendliness” to describe metta, as the word love can be charged for some people. This is the cultivation of a heart and mind which are kind, gentle, and friendly toward ourselves and others.
Compassion is the practice of extending kindness toward suffering and pain. Whether it is our own difficulties or the difficulties of another person, we practice responding with kindness and care.
Appreciative joy is the cultivation of a heart that rejoices in the happiness of others. Just as metta becomes compassion when it meets suffering, it becomes appreciative joy when it meets joy. This can be an antidote to jealousy and envy.
Equanimity is a mind and heart that is balanced in the face of difficulty. When we have compassion or appreciative joy, we can begin to feel. Equanimity is the cultivation of a stable heart that can feel empathy without being swayed off balance.
The Four Establishments of Mindfulness
Sometimes referred to as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness this is perhaps the most important Buddhist teaching on actually practicing mindfulness. If you’re a beginner to mindfulness practice, the four establishments are a great way to begin understanding the practice. This teaching offers four ways in which we can establish mindfulness, and offers a way to deeply understand the Three Marks of Existence.
Mindfulness of Body
The first of the foundations is mindfulness of the body. This includes things like body scans, mindfulness of the breath, cemetery contemplations, and tuning into the presence of the four elements in the body.
Mindfulness of Feeling Tone
The second foundation is mindfulness of vedana or feeling tones. This is not referring to “feelings” as you may think of the term. Instead, we tune into the experience of something as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
Mindfulness of Mental State
The third way we establish mindfulness is in the state of mind. We tune into the thoughts that arise in response to other experience, and the overall state of mind. We may notice when the mind is anxious, angry, in craving, or any other general state.
Mindfulness of the Dhammas
The final establishment is mindfulness of the dhammas. This is the practice of noticing when one of the five hindrances is present, tuning into the Four Noble Truths in our experience, and seeing how the Buddha’s teachings are arising in our practice. With this foundation, we are noticing whether we are heading toward suffering or liberation with the quality of mind and experience.
The Three Marks of Existence
The three marks of existence, or three characteristics of existence, are three characteristics which are shared by all conditioned phenomena in the Buddhist teachings. These are qualities we are to look at and understand in meditation practice. In fact, the purpose of mindfulness practice may be understood as cultivating the ability to see the presence of these marks.
Anicca is most often translated as “impermanence.” The root of the word comes from the Pali a, meaning “not” and nicca, meaning “constant.” We can tune into experience and see that nothing is constant. Everything is in a state of flux, arising and passing.
Anatta is a Pali word often mistranslated as no-self. However, the word itself means “not self.” This is the truth that nothing inherently exists by itself. What we identify as “ourselves” is actually a combination of physical form, thought processes, nerves communicating, fluid, organs, consciousness, and sense-doors. Things only have a “self” because we give them a name or assign a view to them.
The characteristic of dukkha is the teaching that experience inherently lacks satisfaction. Because everything is impermanent and lacks a solid and stable self, we cannot find true happiness by clinging to things.
Karma is one of those things that is often misunderstood, as different religions and traditions have different interpretations of karma. Karma in Buddhism may perhaps most simply be understood as the law of cause and effect. When we take action volitionally, there is a consequence. Whether it is a thought, form of speech, or physical action, we cause effects to arise.
The Three Poisons
This is one of the most core teachings of the Buddha, and points toward the ways in which we create suffering. Sometimes called the three unwholesome roots, these are three qualities which must be uprooted if we are to achieve liberation from the cycle of suffering.
When we experience something pleasant, we crave and cling. The Buddha taught that we can want something in a healthy way, but we can also fall into this craving and grasping. Sometimes this is obvious, but other times it may be more subtle. We can see the way in which we are constantly leaning toward something in the future. As we understand the marks of existence, we can see how futile this craving and clinging is.
Aversion is a similar reaction as craving, and may be understood as the other side of the same coin. When we experience something unpleasant, we avert from it. Another way to understand this may be that we crave to feel differently. We can see this arise in our experience, as we respond with aversion rather than compassion to difficulties.
The final mark of existence is delusion or ignorance. Although this may seem harsh, this is the teaching that we don’t see things clearly as they are. Delusion is the opposite of wise view, and it is through mindfulness practice that we begin to tune into the deeper nature of experience.
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