What Buddhism is All About

A brief overview of what Buddhism is and what it sets out to do.

Thank you for reading No-Self Help. The initial response has been wonderful and makes me even more enthusiastic about the project. My plan for these early issues of the newsletter is to give a brief summary of Buddhism as a whole, talk about why I find it so valuable and worth writing about (and practicing), then give you some resources to learn more if you can’t wait for me to work my way through it here. Let’s start with a whirlwind overview.

The Basic Idea

In our fast-paced world, a sense of unease often lurks beneath the surface. We chase deadlines, juggle responsibilities, and strive for success, yet a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction persists. Buddhism offers a profound yet practical perspective on this human predicament.

The Buddha, Siddhattha Gotama, didn’t shy away from these challenges, but instead set himself the task of finding a way to overcome them. His core teaching centers around the universality of “dukkha.” If you’ve come across Buddhism before, chances are you’ve seen this translated as “suffering,” but that’s a bit misleading. Better to think of it as “stress,” “discomfort,” or (my preference, though it’s a clumsy one) “dis-ease.”

That dukkha is universal to the human experience doesn’t mean we live in a constant state of misery. Rather, there’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction woven into our experience.  It’s the yearning for things to be different, the frustration with impermanence, and the fear of loss.

Understanding the Cause

But what causes this dis-ease? The Buddha identified a key culprit: our craving. We crave pleasurable experiences and possessions. Even clinging to self-image fuels our suffering.  Think of the stress of chasing a promotion or the anxiety of clinging to past successes. This craving arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of ourselves and the world around us. Both are impermanent and constantly changing, but craving means denying that truth.

The Eightfold Path: A Practical Guide to Well-being

Buddhist thought doesn’t just diagnose the problem. It offers a roadmap to overcoming it—a path to a happier, more fulfilling life. The texts refer to this as the Eightfold Path.  Think of it as a set of interconnected practices, each one supporting the others.

The Eightfold Path is the whole of Buddhist practice, and it’s wonderfully right and complex. Here’s a very rough guide to its contents, but rest assured we’ll explore all in much more detail, because all are worth understanding in their fullness.

  1. Right View: This isn't about blind faith, but cultivating a clear understanding of the Four Noble Truths. We’ll talk about those more in a future issue, but for now they are the existence of dukkha, its cause, the possibility of overcoming it, and the path for achieving that (the Eightfold Path itself).

  2. Right Intention: It’s about directing our thoughts and actions away from negativity and towards kindness and generosity. This is setting the intention to progress on the path.

  3. Right Speech: Our words have immense power. This principle encourages mindful communication, fostering positive connections, and steering us away from using our words to cause harm.

  4. Right Action: Ethical conduct is crucial. This means avoiding actions that cause harm to ourselves or others.

  5. Right Livelihood: Earning a living shouldn’t come at the expense of our well-being or the well-being of others. This principle encourages us to choose work that aligns with our values.

  6. Right Effort: Here we put in the work to develop wholesome qualities of mind, and to give up unwholesome ones.

  7. Right Mindfulness: We develop the capacities of awareness and attentiveness to what is present in the moment.

  8. Right Concentration: Mindfulness helps us establish concentration, and concentration helps us establish mindfulness. Right Concentration contains progressively deeper states of focus.

By gradually integrating elements of the Eightfold Path into our lives, we can begin to dismantle the causes of dukkha and cultivate a sense of peace, contentment, and compassion.

The early Buddhist texts offer a wealth of practical guidance on applying these principles. In a future issue, I’ll introduce those and tell you about how you can go about reading them for yourself. For philosophical documents two-thousand years old, they’re remarkably clear and engaging.

Next time, however, I want to tell you why I’m so enthusiastic about Buddhism. Plenty of philosophies claim to offer the path to happiness, and so it’s worth taking a step back and giving you a sense of why I think Buddhism, out of all of them, gets the answer right.

Tell me about your interest in Buddhism

To help me better tailor these posts to the interests of my readers, I'd love for you to tell me what brought you here and what you're hoping to get from reading.

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Talk to you next time.

Join the conversation

or to participate.