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Interfaith Voices: A look at the life and teachings of Buddha

Interfaith Voices: A look at the life and teachings of Buddha


Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, was born in the northern part of India about 2,565 years ago in a region now bordering Nepal. As the first-born son to the monarch of a small kingdom, he lived a spoiled and luxurious life and was trained to be a king.

Legend has it that as a young prince he sneaked out of the palace to go into the town to see how others lived. The first time he did so he encountered an old person hobbling along, bent with pain. He had never seen an old person, and he was troubled. The next time he sneaked out he saw a very sick person, and this too disturbed him. The third time he went out he saw a dead person.

As a result of these three experiences, he began to contemplate what it meant to be alive. He concluded that all living beings are fated to age, sicken, and die. He understood that this was also to be his own destiny. He was determined to discover whether he could do something either to change this fate or to make existence more tolerable. Soon after the birth of his first son, and against his parents’ will, he ran away from the palace and became a mendicant monk.

For the next six years he studied with meditation teachers far and wide, mastering their teaching and techniques. He was not satisfied with any of them. Finally, he sat down under a tree and determined he would not get up until he understood the mystery of life.

He discovered that we cannot change the laws of nature, but we can learn to master our own minds, and in this way we can liberate ourselves from suffering.

He taught that there are three basic principles to this mastery. First, one should live a wholesome, virtuous life. Every religion teaches this, though definitions of virtuous vary. Second, we should practice mindfulness and meditation in order to concentrate the mind, using it to investigate the laws of our physical life and the laws governing our spiritual life. This practice results in the third principle, which is wisdom, achieved by purifying the mind. These three principles are summed up as instructions: Do Good (sila), Avoid evil (samadhi), Purify the mind (panna).

Buddha also taught that there are four basic laws of life, the four Noble Truths:

1. Life is suffering.

2. There are causes for this suffering.

3. We can escape suffering in life. We do not need to wait until we die.

4. The escape lies in the practice of the eightfold path.

This eightfold path sums up Buddha’s directives to us: 1. Right views. 2. Right understanding. 3. Right effort. 4. Right action. 6. Right livelihood. 7. Right mindfulness. 8. Right concentration.

Buddha’s teachings are not based on faith. They are understood through the efforts we make to investigate them, using his teachings as our guide. Through practice, we are able to let go of superstition, the belief in rites and rituals, or the expectation that someone else or some supernatural power can save us.

Buddhism is not a religion. There is no attempt to convert someone from one belief system to Buddhism.

“Happiness and suffering are states of mind; their main causes are not to be found outside the mind," he said. "If we want to be truly happy and free from suffering, we must learn how to control our minds.”

Buddha’s dying words were “Work out your own salvation.”

Jay Gray has lived in Corvallis since 1946. He took his senior year of high school in Cairo, Egypt and senior year of university in Tokyo, Japan. He graduated from Oregon State University with a Religious Studies degree and earned a master's in Divinity from Yale. He currently teaches anyone interested how to practice mindfulness and meditation, non- sectarian and always free of charge.


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