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Three Principles and Three Strategies
At a basic level, the Buddha taught three interconnected principles concerning
human life: suffering, impermanence, and the absence of an ego-self. The idea
that human existence is pervaded by misery and frustration can be difficult for
Western people to accept. Yet a single television newscast provides ample
evidence that humankind is awash in misery worldwide and that we are a lucky
and privileged few. But even those of us who think ourselves immune from
extreme suffering are often confronted, sometimes unexpectedly, with the pain
that characterizes human existence. Careful reflection reveals that despite
material comforts, we all experience emotional unhappiness, boredom,
loneliness, and insecurity.
Why, the Buddha wondered next, is human suffering so pervasive and universal? The answer, he realized, is quite simple: Suffering exists because all things are impermanent. Although we know intellectually that everything is always changing, most of us conduct our lives as though everything that is will last forever. According to the Buddha, the misery and frustration we experience arises because of the mistaken expectation of permanence. While we are happy, we think that we will always be so; when we lose what we have grown attached to, we experience the pain of loss. The truth is, that no matter how bad or how good things are, everything is changing, from the great mountains to our everyday thoughts and emotions. Accepting this truth reduces our suffering tremendously.
The third characteristic of human existence the Buddha taught is that there is no such thing as an unchanging, independent ego-self. Through meditation techniques designed specifically for the purpose, we can come to see that there is no part of the body or mind that can be identified as the ego-self. When we are faced with the sense that things are not as we would have them, the ego-self seems to emerge to defend us against the lack of control we have over our lives. When we try to hold on to things that are dear to us or experience pain when we lose them, we entrench ourselves further behind the protection of the ego-self in a vain attempt to ward off discomfort. Clinging to this false sense of identity leads only to greater attachment and to more suffering and frustration.
Looking at this process, the Buddha concluded that people fail to understand the dynamics at work in their lives and consequently adopt strategies that can result only in failure. Indeed, he said, ignorance entraps people in a vicious circle of desperate measures and unwanted results. In its attempt to protect itself from new and potentially upsetting experiences, the ego-mind employs one of three strategies. When we are faced with something that seems threatening or uncomfortable, we react with aversion and try to shut it out or destroy it. Alternatively, if we believe something can increase our pleasure or power, we attempt to control it through attachment and subordinate it to our wishes and desires. If we fail in these two strategies, we ignore whatever is happening in the hope that it will disappear of its own accord. From these three strategies arises a host of negative and destructive emotions, such as jealousy, lust, greed, and spite.
These negative emotions and their positive opposites, such as kindness, patience, and generosity, motivate nearly all human actions. Because our actions are charged with emotional energy, the Buddha taught that the effects of our actions go beyond the immediate results of which we are aware. In fact, every thought, word, and deed imprints some of its energy on our mindstream. Positive actions leave positive imprints; negative actions leave negative imprints. The energy of these imprints will be released at some time in the future when circumstances trigger experiences that reflect the energy pattern of the original motivation. Though the specifics may vary, negative motivations and actions always lead to distressing and painful experiences, while positive ones have the opposite effect.
Born c563 BC - Died c483 BC
Aged about 80
"I teach one thing and one thing only: that is suffering and the end of suffering"