Friday, May 12, 2006

The Quest for Enlightenment

The Quest for Enlightment

Since tomorrow is Vesak Day, let me choose Buddhism as the topic for today's blog entry. Vesak Day, as most Buddhists would know, commemorates three important events: the birthday, the enlightment and the passing away of Siddharta Gautama Buddha, the Indian prince who threw away a live of pleasure and luxury to search for the Ultimate Truth in the 5th century BCE.

Strangely, I never learned much about Buddhism until I started developing a deep interest in science as a teenager. It was books like The Tao of Physics, Mysticism and the New Physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters which gave me my first real introduction to Eastern religions. Those books set me on a lifelong adventure in science, philosophy and spirituality, which I'm still pursuing to this very day.

The Buddha's teaching is simple; its essence is captured in the what is known as the Four Noble Truths:

1. The truth of suffering
2. The cause of suffering
3. The cessation of suffering
4. The path which leads to the cessation of suffering--the Eight-Fold Path.

What is the one thing about life that we all dislike? Suffering. Sickness is suffering, old age is suffering, not earning enough money is suffering, not being recognized for your achievements is suffering, being rejected by your loved one is suffering, facing Monday in the office is suffering, having a slow Internet connection is suffering...and finally, death itself is suffering.

Why do we have to suffer? What is the underlying cause of this suffering?

The Buddha, like a good doctor, diagnosed the problem: suffering is caused by craving and attachment. We suffer everytime we crave for something. What are the things that most of us crave for? Material things, sensual pleasures, intellectual pleasures and ultimately, life itself. We want to live and enjoy forever. We want to own beautiful and expensive things; we want to be praised, to be recognized, to be pampered, to be loved. We crave for the pleasure of weekends, so we suffer greatly whenever Monday approaches. (Thankfully, I'm spared this suffering because there's no difference between weekend and weekdays for me :-) ).

Now, one might ask: what's wrong with that? To live is to want, to desire, to crave, to love. What's the purpose of living, if we don't go after what we want most in life?

There's nothing wrong with that attitude. All of us certainly has the right to experience all the pleasures that life has to offer in all its intensity. Only catch is that: if you don't realize the inherent truth about suffering, when you fall, you'll fall very hard.

Every pleasurable experience is ultimately impermanent. Everything in the universe comes and goes in a wave-like motion. Pleasure comes, pleasure goes. Your life is an endless chase after pleasures. And everytime the pleasure ends, it feels painful. There's a feeling of emptiness.

That other thing is that, everytime you attain a pleasure, you will find that it is for some reason, less satisfactory than the previous experience. There's already familiarity, and the mind gets bored. So you keep on chasing pleasures of greater and greater intensity, and never seem to be able to achieve complete satisfaction in the process.

At some point, you will throw your arms up in despair and realize that all pleasures in life are ultimately unsatisfactory. It is a suffering to continue desiring all these transient pleasures. The more you think about it, the more you suffer. You have developed an attachment, a craving, or worse still, an addiction towards it.

When you come to this, you have already realized the first two Noble Truths--the hard way. If you are still in one piece, you can then attempt to cure yourself of this malady. You move on to the Third Noble Truth: to end suffering, tackle its root cause--craving.

How do we do that? Dr. Buddha gives his prescription: Noble Truth Number Four, the Eight-Fold Path--Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

What the Eightfold Path provides is a set of guidelines on how one could reprogram one's physical and mental behaviour, culminating in the practice of meditation, where the mind is finally awakened into higher states of awareness.

The Buddha, when he was asked to summarized all his teachings into one word, was supposed to have said: "Awareness". When you are aware, you no longer associate yourself with your body, your ego, or the thinking processes that goes on in your mind. You are an awakened being of pure awareness. You are. Period.

When you have reached this state of awareness, you have no more clinging towards the world because you can see how shallow the so-called pleasurable experiences that constitute life are. You transcend all the dualities of pain and pleasure to enter a state of perpetual bliss, freed from the ceasely cycle of birth and death. The unconditioned state, the end of suffering: Nirvana.

One might ask: Isn't that like death? What's the difference between dying and achieving Nirvana? Doesn't the whole thing smell of nihilism?

Such questions are difficult to answer, because we are discussing something that is beyond the realm of ordinary experience. All extremes may sometimes appear similar but they are not. Very low frequencies of light appear as darkness to us, but so too do high frequencies beyond the ultraviolet range.

In the end, it is pointless to argue or dwell too much on such philosophical points. The essence of Buddhism is practice. Meditation lies at the heart of it. And through practice, one progresses. There's nothing more to be said beyond that.

This is emphasized very succintly in Buddha's final words as he breathed his last at the age of eighty:
"Behold, O monks, this is my last advice to you. All component things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Work dilligent towards your salvation!"

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