All of the below is an excerpt from the book, ‘Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari. It is an exceptional book, and Yuval’s explanation of Buddhism is the best I’ve come across. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
The central figure of Buddhism is not a god but a human being, Siddhartha Gautama. According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama was heir to a small Himalayan kingdom, sometime around 500 BC. The young prince was deeply affected by the suffering evident all around him. He saw that men and woman, children and old people, all suffer not just from occasional calamities such as war and plague, but also from anxiety, frustration and discontent, all of which seem to be an inseparable part of the human condition. People pursue wealth and power, acquire knowledge and possessions, beget sons and daughters, and build houses and palaces. Yet no matter what they achieve, they are never content. Those who live in poverty dream of riches. Those who have a million want two million. Those who have two million want 10 million. Even the rich and famous are rarely satisfied. They too are haunted by ceaseless cares and worries, until sickness, old age and death put a bitter end to them. Everything that one has accumulated vanishes like smoke. Life is a pointless rat race. But how to escape it?
At the age of twenty-nine Gautama slipped away from his palace in the middle of the night, leaving behind his family and possessions. He travelled as a homeless vagabond throughout northern India, searching for a way out of suffering. He visited ashrams and sat at the feet of gurus but nothing liberated him entirely – some dissatisfaction always remained. He did not despair. He resolved to investigate suffering on his own until he found a method for complete liberation. He spent six years meditating on the essence, causes and cures for human anguish. In the end he came to the realisation that suffering is not caused by ill fortune, by social injustice, or by divine whims. Rather, suffering is caused by the behaviour patterns of one’s own mind.
Gautama’s insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction. When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things, such as pain. As long as the pain continues, we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that the pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify. People dream for years about finding love but are rarely satisfied when they find it. Some become anxious that their partner will leave; others feel that they have settled cheaply, and could have found someone better. And we all know people who manage to do both.
Great gods can send us rain, social institutions can provide justice and good health care, and lucky coincidences can turn us into millionaires, but none of them can change our basic mental patterns. Hence, even the greatest kings are doomed to live in angst, constantly fleeing grief and anguish, forever chasing after greater pleasures.
Gautama found that there was a way to exit this vicious circle. If, when the mind experiences something pleasant or unpleasant, it simply understands things as they are, then there is no suffering. If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness will go away, you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it. There can actually be richness in sadness. If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and intensify, you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind.
But how do you get the mind to accept things as they are, without craving? To accept sadness as sadness, joy as joy, pain as pain? Gautama developed a set of meditation techniques that train the mind to experience reality as it is, without craving. These practices train the mind to focus all its attention on the question, ‘What am I experiencing right now?’ rather than on ‘What would I rather be experiencing?’ It is difficult to achieve this state of mind, but not impossible.
Gautama grounded these meditation techniques in a set of ethical rules meant to make it easier for people to focus on actual experience and avoid falling into cravings and fantasies. He instructed his followers to avoid killing, promiscuous sex and theft, since such acts necessarily stoke the fire of craving (for power, for sensual pleasure, or for wealth). When the flames are completely extinguished, craving is replaced by a state of perfect contentment and serenity, known as nirvana (the literal meaning of nirvana which is ‘extinguishing the fire’). Those who have obtained nirvana are fully liberated from all suffering. They experience reality with the utmost clarity, free of fantasies and delusions. While they will most likely still encounter unpleasantness and pain, such experiences cause them no misery. A person who does not crave cannot suffer.
According to Buddhist tradition, Gautama himself attained nirvana and was fully liberated from suffering. Henceforth he was known as ‘Buddha’, which means ‘the Enlightened One’. Buddha spent the rest of his life explaining his discoveries to others so that everyone could be freed from suffering. He encapsulated his teachings in a single law; suffering arises from craving; the only way to be fully liberated from suffering is to be fully liberated from craving; and the only way to be liberated from craving is to train the mind to experience reality as it is.
This law, known as dharma or dhamma, is seen by Buddhists as a universal law of nature. That ‘suffering arises from craving’ is always and everywhere true, just as in modern physics E always equals mc2. Buddhists are people who believe in this law and make it the fulcrum of all their activities. Belief in gods, on the other hand, is of minor importance to them. The first principle of monotheist religions is ‘God’ exists. What does He want from me? The first principle of Buddhism is ‘Suffering exists. How do I escape it?’
Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods – they are described as powerful beings who can bring rains and victories – but they have no influence on the law that suffering arises from craving. If the mind of a person is free of all craving, no god can make him miserable. Conversely, once craving arises in a person’s mind, all the gods in the universe cannot save him from suffering.
Yet much like the monotheist religions, premodern natural-law religions such as Buddhism never really rid themselves of the worship of gods. Buddhism told people that they should aim for the ultimate goal of complete liberation from suffering, rather than for stops along the way such as economic prosperity and political power. However, 99 per cent of Buddhists did not attain nirvana, and even if they hoped to do so in some future lifetime, they devoted most of their present lives to the pursuit of mundane achievements. So they continued to worship various gods, such as the Hindu gods in India, the Bon gods in Tibet, and the Shintu gods in Japan.
Moreover, as time went by several Buddhist sects developed pantheons of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. These are human and non-human beings with the capacity to achieve full liberation from suffering but who forego this liberation out of compassion, in order to help the countless beings still trapped in the cycle of misery. Instead of worshipping gods, many Buddhists began worshipping these enlightened beings, asking them to for help not only in attaining nirvana, but also in dealing with mundane problems. Thus we find many Buddhas and bodhisattvas throughout East Asia who spend their time bringing rain, stopping plagues, and even winning bloody wars – in exchange for prayers, colourful flowers, fragrant incense and gifts of rice and candy.