In his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha said, "I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering" [source: Sri Rahula].
The collective teachings of Buddhism are called the dharma and touch on every facet of human existence, from moral and ethical behavior to mental discipline to compassionate service. The ultimate goal of the dharma is to help individuals awaken to the true nature of reality, and to bring about changes in their behavior and thought patterns so as to break free of suffering.
As one Buddhist text explains, the essence of Buddhism can be boiled down to three things: "learning to do good; ceasing to do evil; purifying the heart" [source: The Buddhist Centre].
In his earliest teaching, Buddha laid out his vision of the true nature of reality, which became known as the Four Noble Truths:
- All existence is dukkha: Translated as suffering, pain or "unsatisfactoriness," dukkha is an inescapable truth of life.
- The cause of dukkha is craving: Suffering is not caused by outside forces or circumstances, but by our own thoughts and desires. The desire for pleasure, wealth, beauty, even existence itself only leads to suffering.
- The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving:By changing the way we think and respond to life's circumstances, we can detach from our desires and free ourselves from suffering. Nirvana is the fullest expression of that liberation from suffering.
- There is a path that leads from dukkha:Although it's up to each individual to find his or her own personal path to enlightenment, the Buddha provided guideposts along the journey. One set of guiding principles is called the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path is not meant to be a set of rules that, if broken, lead to divine punishment. Instead, it describes a way of living that is ethical, disciplined and wise, and provides the most direct route away from suffering and toward enlightenment.
There's no order to the Noble Eightfold Path, since all are dependent on one another [source: Sri Rahula]:
- Right understanding: understanding the true nature of existence according to the Four Noble Truths
- Right thought: thoughts that are free of selfish desire and hatred, and full of love, nonviolence and selfless detachment
- Right speech: speech that is free of lies, abusive language, backbiting and gossip
- Right action: includes admonitions against killing, stealing, illegitimate sexual intercourse and dishonest dealings
- Right livelihood: making a living through honest and honorable work that doesn't bring harm to others
- Right effort: to actively avoid "evil and unwholesome" states of mind and focus on cultivating more positive ways of thinking and being
- Right mindfulness: through breathing and meditation, becoming aware of the relationship between the body, sensations, feelings and thoughts
- Right concentration: learning to master thoughts and feelings through meditation to achieve perfect stillness of the mind and detachment from the body
This brief summary barely scratches the surface of the dharma. The Buddha spent his life teaching the Noble Eightfold Path in different ways to different people, and those teachings are recorded in Buddhist scriptures like the Pali Canon and countless writings attributed to the Buddha's first followers and spiritual giants throughout the ages. Understanding the core teachings of Buddhism takes a lifetime, or several lifetimes.