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Overview: Starting on the Buddha's Path

The Buddha's basic teaching is:

  1. There is suffering in the world,

  2. The cause (of the mental aspect) of this suffering is "wanting"

  3. The good news is that The Buddha found a Path to bring an end to this suffering

  4. The Path is the Noble Eightfold Path.

The above are known as the Four Noble Truths. The reason it is so hard to understand the Four Noble Truths is we can't see through our concept of a self. The Buddha realized that there is no permanent essence to our self. We are a verb, not a noun. We are an impermanent process conditioned by past experiences. We seek our happiness from the sensory world....from beautiful sights and sounds, fragrant smells, delightful flavours, soothing or stimulating touch, interesting thoughts/ideas. Yet all of these are impermanent. We are constantly putting out energy to seek new, pleasurable sensory experiences to maintain our happiness. As we age, it gets more and more difficult to expend this energy to find sensory happiness.

The Buddha is offering an alternative....letting go. And surprisingly, this letting go results in a blissful happiness that is beyond the most pleasurable happiness the sensory world can offer. But how do we know this? We can only take it on faith from the descriptions of the Buddha and the stories of his students. So, in the meantime, we live our lives in the sensory world, minimizing our suffering by minimizing wanting what reality doesn't offer, by being kind and generous and compassionate to ourselves and others and, on faith, spending time in meditation. There we receive tastes of what the Buddha taught....the taste of peace and happiness from letting go of wanting. This spurs us on to further practice. And one day, we experience the truth of the Four Noble Truths for ourselves. Then we are truly on the path to the end of suffering.

Until then, as Ajahn Sona said, "Don't worry about it." We continue to live our life in a way that feels right to us. We don't force ourself to give up sensory experiences because we think that's what is expected of a Buddhist. The wish to pursue sensory experiences will naturally fall away as we experience tastes of the Four Noble Truths. We'll have a "been there, done that" feeling towards sensory experiences. Or, the interest is just gone as in a child who has grown and is no longer interested in their favourite toys of a few years ago. As our contentment and pleasure from our meditation practice grows and our urge to engage in seeking pleasures from the sensory world diminish, we'll have just "gained ourselves a cheap retirement", as Ajahn Sona says!

With complete letting go, described as Awakening/Enlightenment/ Nibbhana (Nirvana) there is no more rebirth. Rebirth requires wanting/ desire. Desire causes rebirth. So, if we'd like to be reborn problem! Our wish for rebirth will ensure that it happens. On the other hand, especially if we have insight into past lives..... innumerable past lives, we may have the feeling of "been there, done that" and have no desire for rebirth. If this is accompanied by complete letting go then we will not experience rebirth. However, if we have a wish to not be reborn, that is a desire, and desire causes rebirth. So, we will be reborn!

This point makes it clear that this Noble Eightfold path is not about hating this life in the sensory world. It is about experiencing happiness. But this happiness has a different cause. It is not from sensory experiences. It's from letting go. As the Dalai Lama said, this Noble Eightfold path is the "Art of Happiness", the title of one of his books. Happiness is our goal. As laypeople, as we experience the peace and happiness from letting go, we gradually and naturally change our source of happiness from the sensory world to letting go. And happiness from letting go is equivalent to letting go of a sense of self, so there is no self to be concerned about rebirth. There is just happiness, contentment.

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