The content of that awakening was initially expressed in Shakyamuni Buddha’s first teaching in which he explained the Four Noble Truths:
- Life is full of suffering.
- There are causes to that suffering.
- Such suffering can be overcome.
- The Eightfold Path is the way to end suffering.
The original word for suffering is dukkha, often expressed as a wheel with its axle out of kilter. The wheel, a metaphor for our lives, does not turn smoothly because its essence is off-center. Before his awakening, we can presume that the Buddha saw life as we do, that any experiences of suffering were the result of external forces. He lists the principal causes of suffering as birth, illness, aging, and death.
He saw that the one undeniable truth is that life is impermanent, and that it is our resistance to the transient nature of life that brings about suffering. No matter how hard we try to hold on to our health, we become ill; no matter how hard we try to hold on to our youth, we grow old; no matter how hard we try to hold on to the people we love, death brings separation and ultimately our own demise.
His realization, though, was that impermanence is neutral; the changes themselves are not necessarily good nor bad in and of themselves. The cause of suffering lies totally in ourselves, in our reactions to those changes and in our ignorance of the reality of impermanence. Since we are the cause of our own suffering, suffering can be overcome. The way to overcome that suffering is the Eightfold Path, the fourth aspect of the Four Noble Truths.
The Eightfold Path which encourages right understanding, thinking, speech, conduct, livelihood, endeavor, mindfulness, and meditation, is meant to provide us with a new perspective of life. It promotes wisdom and compassion in our interactions with the world about us, and ultimately leads to finding happiness and meaning in our own lives.
The Buddha attained his awakening at the age of thirty-five, and for the next forty-five years, he shared his understanding of life with everyone he encountered. The truths he awakened to came from his own experience of life, not from any revelation from the heavens. As a result, there is no acknowledgment of gods. Buddhism is focused on this life and has no definitive view of creation nor afterlife. Heaven and hell, therefore, are conditions we create here and now and are not a reward or punishment after death. In its essence, therefore, Buddhism does not fit into the normal definition of religion. There are no commandments nor beliefs its followers must hold to.
Simply stated, Buddhism is the encouragement of a way of life that enables us to discover the meaning of our birth as human beings and the true joy of living.