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The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching

The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, by Thich Nhat Hanh

This novel was written by a Vietnamese man, who is well-known in the Western civilizations for his studies of Buddhism. Overall, it was worth reading this book. I disagreed with many of the stances taken by the author, but it was valuable to see the Buddhist perspective on life. There’s much that I do not know nor understand. Buddhism is just one of the many topics that I’m ignorant about. It was fun to read about the Buddha’s views and compare them to my own. By the end of the book though, I was tired of being filled with Buddhist doctrine, and I was ready for the book to be over.

Part 1: The Four Noble Truths

All of the Buddha’s teachings are centered around suffering and the transformation of suffering. The author stresses that we need to read and study with an open mind. Otherwise, and too often, we embrace the ideas that confirm our current ways of thoughts, and we discard the ideas that oppose our current thought patterns. This is not the point. The point is to be open, and to challenge your ideologies. Challenging my thoughts is exactly what I am trying to do with this book, and with every book that I read. I’m searching for new, better ways of thinking. In this world, there are smarter people who have better ideas than me. Challenging your current ideologies and thought patterns is difficult. I trust that I will continue to keep my mind open to the Buddha’s ideas while reading this book.

A big theme is “mindfulness.” Be mindful of your eating, sleeping, breathing, walking, emotions, etc. Stop and be mindful. Just like people at the gum are not mindful of their bodies when exercising, we are often not mindful about our actions in life. I have observed many examples of this with my roommates. There is a lack of mindfulness during daily activities, and this lack of awareness exists in a majority of people.

The author describes Four Noble Truths about suffering, and for each of these truths, he attributes three turnings. The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Suffering (dukkha)

  2. Creation of suffering (samudaya)

  3. Cessation of the creation of suffering (nirodha)

  4. The path that leads to the cessation of the creation of suffering (marga)

And the three turnings are:

  1. Recognition

  2. Encouragement

  3. Realization

1.1 We recognize that we are suffering and that something is wrong, but we do not know how to escape it.

1.2 We look deeply at our pain, testing it, meditating on it, and seeking to understand it.

1.3 We have successfully diagnosed our ailment and attributed a name to it

2.1. After diagnosing our suffering, we recognize that we continue to feed it. We recognize that we continue to create suffering via the nutriments that we permit to enter our bodies. What are the nutriments that we ingest that cause suffering? We must understand these first, before we can practice ingesting wholesome nutriments:

2.1.1. Edible food

2.1.2. Sense impressions – movies, billboards, magazines, music, games, news articles

2.1.3. Volition or intention – we have desires for wealth, fame, and power. Give up your cows and you will be happier.

2.1.4. Consciousness – rumination on despair, anger, and hatred

2.2. We clearly see that it is possible to alleviate suffering and achieve true happiness, if we can only stop ingesting bad nutriments. Hence, mindfulness of ingestion. We vow to stop ingesting nutriments that contribute to our suffering.

2.3. We actually stop ingesting the nutriments that cause suffering. We actually do it, not just vow to do it. At this point, we sleep when tired and eat when hungry.

3.1. We recognize that there is some level of peace and joy in our lives. We recognize that “well-being is possible.”

3.2. We encourage ourselves to seek out peace and joy. We participate in activities that bring peace and joy, and we begin to notice all the small miracles of life.

3.3. We learn the art of how to cultivate joy. We realize that joy is stable.

4.1. We recognize that the Eightfold Path will lead us out of suffering. But we do not know how to practice it yet.

4.2. We encourage ourselves to practice the Eightfold Path. We implement what we’ve learned.

4.3. We realize that we are actually practicing the Eightfold Path, just like Buddha taught. Good for us.

Part 2: The Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right View – This starts with a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Just like wisdom cannot be taught, it is the same with Right View. It cannot be taught. Part of the Right View is recognizing the wholesome seeds in your life and watering those seeds. Similarly, recognizing the poisonous seeds in your life and starving those. The author also talks about perceptions. When we see a physical object, such as a desk or a coffee cup, we actually receive that object in our mind. Hence the object is manifested in our consciousness through how we perceive it. Our consciousness dictates how we see objects. In a similar way, our consciousness controls the emotions we feel (happy, sad, angry, love, etc.). Even after that explanation, I still do not understand Right View. But I guess that’s what he means when he says that it cannot be taught.

  2. Right Thinking – First, we need a solid foundation. The foundation for Right Thinking is Right View. If we do not have Right View, then we cannot practice Right Thinking, because action follows thinking, Right Thinking is then the foundation for Right Action. View -> Think -> Action. Thinking is the speech of our mind. To practice Right Thinking, you can ask yourself some questions: Are you sure? What are you doing? Is this a habitual action?

  3. Right Mindfulness (“The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”) – The author thinks this is the most important of the Buddha’s teachings, and he has much to say about it. Mindfulness is at the basis for all of our views, thoughts, and actions. Mindfulness is focusing on the present moment. Be wholly present in the now. First, be mindful of your body. Recognize that it is made up of the four elements: earth, wind, fire, air. I tried one of the examples that he explained. Breathe in and out. With your first in-breath count “one.” Then with the out-breath, count “one.” For your second in-breath, count “two” and for the second out-breath, count “two.” Proceed with counting your breaths, up to ten, and then back down to ten. If you can do this successfully, without losing count, then you have good concentration, the author argues. I tried this exercise, and did not have any difficulty completing it. However, I also recognized that if I let my mind wander, then it would be possible to lose count. Will I do this exercise in the future? Probably not. But it was an interesting one-time experiment. After being mindful of your body, be aware of your feelings. Try to entangle them and ascertain your feelings in the moment. Are you agitated, jealous, joyous, fearful? What are you feeling? When you recognize your feelings, then Right Mindfulness will water the wholesome seeds and starve the negative seeds. The last aspect of Right Mindfulness is being mindful of the objects around us. Recognize the mountains, the book, the grass, etc. In the author’s opinion, Right Mindfulness is “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.”

  4. Right Speech – Speak truthfully, without cruelty, and without embellishment. Before being able to practice Right Speech, we must first be practicing Right Mindfulness. Right Mindfulness enables us to listen to ourselves and determine the positive and negative nutriments in our lives. Once you listen to yourself, then you can speak truthfully. Speech is like putting a microphone to your thoughts. Speech is playing your thoughts out loud for the world to hear. Speech, according to the author, should not cause needless suffering. Instead, Right Speech should relieve suffering. He talks a lot about Right Listening. Often, a person just needs to speak in order to relieve their suffering. In this case, simply listen. Listening is an important skill. I agree wholeheartedly. I often come across people who just need to talk. They need to talk about what’s on their mind. To practice Right Speech, you use your consciousness to act as a filter. Your consciousness filters out the thoughts that are not wholesome or should not be shared. Yes, I agree. Additionally, writing is a great form of speech. Writing gives you the opportunity to express the truth in the most skillful way. Writing, such as this blog, is great.

  5. Right Action – This refers to Right Action of the body. Avoid sexual misconduct, do not kill, consume wholesome foods, do not smoke, and do not indulge in excessive alcohol.

  6. Right Diligence – Also called Right Effort. Examples of wrong efforts include the pursuits of food, sex, money, possessions, power, and fame. These things are not worth pursuing with your actions. These are not Right Diligence. Right Diligence is practicing those things that bring you happiness and joy. In my opinion, the author is focused too much on “happiness and joy” in this chapter. He thinks that you should strive for happiness, joy, and ease. I do not think those are the most worthwhile pursuits of life. However, I recognize that I disagree with the author, and that’s why I will not be practicing Buddhism. I think that there is more to life than eliminating suffering and pursuing joy. I think that emotions are important and should be fostered. I do not think that all of our pursuits should be focused on the self. Although Buddhism offers many insightful teachings, I think that it is only a poor substitute for God’s truths.

  7. Right Concentration – There are two types of concentration: active and selective. During active concentration, you focus on what is happening around you, such as the bird flying nearby or the family walking in the park. When the scene passes, you are no longer concentrating on it. On the other hand, during selective concentration, you select an object and focus solely on that object. For example, when you watch a movie, you focus only on the movie. When I think about writing a program at work, I concentrate only on the task. That’s selective concentration. Right Concentration is concentrating on those objects that bring you happiness, joy, and peace. Again with the happiness and joy themes. There are different levels of concentration. Right Concentration starts with the perception of earth, fire, water, and air. Then, deeper levels of concentration include limitless space, limitless consciousness, nothingness, non-perception, and cessation. The discussion on these deeper levels of concentration got real weird for me. I did not understand them, likely because I have not practiced them. Should I try to understand these concepts more by practicing them? No.

  8. Right Livelihood – The author argues against livelihoods that produce weapons and kill things. He says these are not Right Livelihoods. Right Livelihood refers explicitly to your profession. This was another chapter that I did not agree with many of the author’s thoughts. He says that occupations such as farming cannot be a Right Livelihood because it uses pesticides, and butchers because they kill animals, and scientist and engineers who facilitate the research and development of weapons. I think there are many reasons why these types of occupations are acceptable. But this chapter did help me understand some of the Buddhist views.

Part 3: Other Basic Buddhist Teachings

  1. The Two Truths – There are a lot of bulleted lists and numbered lists in this book. In this chapter, there are two truths: absolute truth and relative truth. A good example is provided: a wave. A wave may think of itself with a beginning and an end, a birth and death. It may also perceive itself as being high or being low, or being strong or being weak. But if the wave could see the larger picture, it would recognize that it is water. And water has no beginning and no end. The wave’s perception of itself is relative truth. When the wave transcends this, and recognizes that it is water, with no life and no death, then it experiences absolute truth. In the same way, our feelings are relative truths. When you reach Nirvana, everything is gone. There are no perceptions and no conceptions. In Nirvana, you have transcended relative truth. You recognize that your physical body is made of earth, fire, water, and air. The author refers to this absolute truth, where you recognize that your body will not experience life or death, as “non-self.”

  2. The Three Dharma Seals – (1) Impermanence (2) Non-self (3) Nirvana. These are important concepts. Along with mindfulness, the author talks about theses seals frequently. Impermanence is the sight that everything withers. Flowers die, children grow into adults, a stone erodes. Non-self is the seal that you are made of many elements that are not actually you. You are a collection of air, water, and cells that also exist elsewhere. Furthermore, you are a conglomeration of personalities from your friends and other people in your life. Thirdly, nirvana is the complete elimination of all concepts. Nothing is permanent; there is no life, no death, and no self. It is the extinction of all notions such as birth, death, and being. To me, nirvana seems like numbing. It is the seeking to numb our surroundings and feelings. Numbness does not seem like the appropriate pursuit in life. Rather than seek numbness to everything, we should seek to foster the good feelings and surroundings. Emotions, feelings, and pain all help us determine what is worthwhile pursuing in life, and they guide us towards the pursuit of good. Despite not defining “good,” I think we all agree that “good” is worth pursuing. Nirvana is not good. Nirvana numbs us to goodness.

  3. The Three Doors of Liberation – (1) Emptiness (2) Signlessness and (3) Aimlessness. The Buddha teaches the pursuit of aimlessness. The purpose of a flower is to simply be a flower. Same for yourself. Simply be yourself. Do not strive or chase after goals. Just being is sufficient. Instead of striving, aiming, and competing in life, try having no aim. You only need to be happy in the present moment, and your happiness can be achieved by practicing mindfulness. These are the teachings of Buddha… This is all folly. It is nonsense. It’s foolishness. God created man to work and to sub-create. God acts with a purpose. He is not idle. Our God is an active God, and he created man to be a resemblance of him. The goal of life is not your happiness. You are not perfect just the way you are. You’re a broken, fallen human. You were created to work, to worship, to create. I vehemently disagree with Buddha’s teaching on aimlessness. Although I disagree, I am trying to keep an open mind. I realize that many people find value in these teachings. And rightfully so. For example, the next point made by the author is agreeable. He states that worrying and anxiety accomplish nothing. Do not worry and do not be anxious; I agree with this.

  4. The Three Bodies of Buddha – (1) Dharmakaya (2) Sambhogakaya and (3) Nirmanakaya, where “kaya” means “body.”

  5. The Three Jewels – To take refuge in (1) Buddha (2) Dharma and (3) Sangha. One of the claims that the author makes is that Buddhism does not rest on blind faith. The teachings of the Buddha are based on reality. Repeatedly, he denounces “blind faith.” I agree that we cannot physically see God, so in that sense Christianity is a “blind” faith. However, I can see God working just as plainly as the author claims to see unity and singleness. The concepts of “unity” and “nirvana” cannot be fully explained with words, just like God cannot fully grasped by words alone. Buddhism requires just as much faith as Christianity. Actually, I think that Buddhism required more “blind faith” than the belief in the Christian God. It is obvious that there is some greater force acting in our world, and it can almost be considered blindness to miss this observation.

  6. The Four Immeasurable Minds – Braham is the Buddhist universal god. You must practice the Four Immeasurable Minds to spend eternity with Braham. These are (1) love (2) compassion (3) joy and (4) equanimity. In this chapter, the author tells us to preserve our roots, meaning that if the Jewish religion makes you happy, then continue practicing Judaism. If the Christian religion makes you happy, then continue practicing Christianity. The ultimate goal is happiness, and if these roots make you happy, then keep them. Love, letting-go, and happiness are the themes of this chapter.

  7. The Five Aggregates – A man is composed of (1) form (2) feelings (3) perceptions (4) mental formations and (5) consciousness. Big theme here is to be mindful of your full body. Practice Right Mindfulness, which is the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. To practice mindfulness, you must be aware of your body in its entirety, including each of the Five Aggregates.

  8. The Five Powers – By practicing the Five Powers, you experience happiness and peace in the here and now. The author compares this peace to the peace of child who is playing outside, with no worries, and who comes back to a fresh meal prepared by mom. That’s the contentment of a child and the peace-like state that we should be pursuing. The Five Powers are (1) faith (2) energy (3) mindfulness (4) concentration and (5) insight.

  9. The Six Paramitas – As usual, all of the paramitas are related to one another, and you cannot have just one without the others.

  10. The Links of Interdependent Co-Arising

  11. Touching the Buddha Within

The last four chapters of the book were not very interesting. They were just a re-working of the previous themes, which are primarily mindfulness, happiness, and unity. The objective of Buddhism is to reduce suffering. This is accomplished by mindfulness. Beyond these major themes, the rest of the Buddha’s teachings are rules for reducing suffering and achieving happiness. There are lists and lists of rules, but in the midst of all the teachings, the central concept remains. For keeping continuity, and developing multiple approaches for reducing suffering, across of all his teachings, I think the Buddha must be commended. It is not easy to maintain unity across a lifetime of lessons. This is an indication that the Buddha truly believed what he preached.

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