Is Buddhist Thought Relevant Today?...

 


KEY POINTS

  • Buddhism has a rich psychological tradition of which mindfulness is one element.
  • The Four Noble Truths offer an understanding of the universal human experience of suffering, stress, and unease.
  • The Noble Eightfold Path provides a guide to overcoming suffering and un-satisfactoriness.

The enduring popularity of Buddhist ideas is evident in the ubiquity of “mindfulness” in our world today. The broader value of Buddhist psychological principles is, however, sometimes lost in the profusion of news stories, books, websites, and apps that clamour for attention. It is useful to look directly at Buddhist teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path, to see their full relevance in our lives today.

Four Noble Truths

Buddhism suggests that suffering, stress, or unease is part of our usual experience of the world. The Four Noble Truths offer a paradigm for addressing this universal experience. As a result, they retain their relevance and merit close attention today.

The first noble truth is the existence of duhkha, which is often translated as “suffering,” although it can also mean “pain,” “stress,” or “unease.” In essence, duhkha refers to the un-satisfactoriness of much of human experience and behaviour, and points to a need to identify the root cause of duhkha and overcome it.

The second noble truth is the cause of duhkha. In Buddhist tradition, duhkha results from craving (also translated as “attachment” or “grasping”), aversion, and delusion. As humans, we desire objects and activities that increase enjoyment; we are averse to those that do not, and we tend to look away from reality much of the time (“delusion”).

Most generations believe that they experience un-satisfactoriness or duhkha to a greater degree than previous generations did, but un-satisfactoriness is a constant feature of the human experience. Today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this sense of un-satisfactoriness is especially evident in increased rates of anxiety and depression across the populations of virtually all countries. It seems that there is duhkha everywhere, owing, in part, to COVID-19 and related public health restrictions, but also owing to pre-existing circumstances and our own habitual reactions to difficulty.

With this in mind, the third noble truth appears especially relevant, as it states that suffering can cease, provided we face duhkha and overcome craving, aversion, and delusion. This is the final aim of Buddhist practice and is known as nirvana or nibbana. The fourth noble truth concerns the way that suffering can be overcome through the Noble Eightfold Path, based on the key principles of wisdom, moral virtue, and meditation.

Noble Eightfold Path

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