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A Letter From the Buddha to a Follower

My friend, in experiencing the world, you have no doubt stumbled across the problem of suffering, which is ever-present. All have experienced suffering and have seen its toll on the outside world. What is it that causes suffering and pain? The answer is desire. Desire for material goods, for social status, for your neighbor’s house, for a better life: these hopes when left unfulfilled cause pain, but when fulfilled are immediately replaced with some other desire. This conclusion leads us to the following conclusions that have been demonstrated to us by experience, which we call the Four Noble Truths: “(1) There is suffering; (2) suffering has specific and identifiable causes; (3) suffering can be ended; (4) the way to end suffering is through enlightened living, as expressed in the Eightfold Path” (Moore, 2005 p.5). Those truths will guide us as we further contemplate the path to enlightenment.

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I have many times been asked what the way to enlightenment is, and have been asked to prescribe a formula for my followers that will lead them to Nirvana. How are we to remove ourselves from the world of attachment and desire, which we know to cause suffering? How might we become free of the chains of desire that we are shackled with? Such a description for the proper lens to approach the personal quest for enlightenment I will give momentarily. First, I would like to relate an instance that may shed more light on the difficulty of reaching enlightenment.

The instance of the self-denying monk and the dancing monk (gakkaionline.net): As one of my followers was on his way to see me, he encountered a monk who was depriving himself of all things in order to reach enlightenment. As the follower passed, the monk said, “Ask the Buddha how many more lifetimes I must live before I reach enlightenment.” As my follower proceeded, he then encountered a dancing monk who also asked him “how many more lifetimes must I live before I reach enlightenment.” I informed my disciple to tell the self-denying monk he must live four more lifetimes, and the dancing monk that he must live as many lifetimes as the leaves of a tree. When told of my responses, I later learned that the self-denying monk grimaced and lowered his head. However, the dancing monk merely laughed and as a result, instantly became enlightened.

The self-denying monk may be admired for making sacrifices of some of his personal desires and impulses; undoubtedly a state which will be achieved when enlightenment is reached. However, I also went through a stage where I lived as an ascetic. I left a life of luxury to live in the forest for six years. I begged for food and starved myself. I attempted to control my senses by simply willing away my desires. Yet, it was not in the forest where I reached enlightenment because it is not simply the act of giving up personal belongings, food and impulses that open the door to Nirvana. The most difficult part of giving up desires in order to become enlightened is giving up the final desire: the desire to become enlightened.

Bear this point in mind as you digest the Eightfold Path to enlightenment (Moore, 2005 p.7). The first fold is Right View; knowing that it is ignorance and attachment which cause human suffering, and accepting the Four Noble truths. The second is Right Aim; overcoming personal desires which free the self from the bondage of envy and resentment towards others. The third is Right Speech; obtaining from saying untruths or things that are deceitful. The fourth is Right Action; not doing things that further personal desires and instead of doing good deeds. The fifth is Right Living; making a living through legitimate means and not by acting on greedy desires. The sixth is Right Effort; working against those things that are evil. The seventh is Right Mindfulness; gaining perspective on the nature of desire and enlightenment and developing an untainted mind. The eighth is Right Contemplation; the liberation of the mind from desires and entering into the infinite consciousness. Therefore, the path to enlightenment runs through certain actions, but necessitates the further step of Mindfulness and Contemplation, which are the hardest to achieve.

Consider these truths in context of the two monks that I have previously described. The man who lead the self-denying life had indeed taken several steps down the path: he knew the Four Noble truths and was trying to personally overcome them. However, it was his attachment to the notion of becoming enlightened that prevented him from taking the final two steps into Right Mindfulness: he was not aware that it was his desire for enlightenment that was preventing it. Conversely, the dancing monk was confronted with the knowledge that he must live hundreds of more lifetimes to achieve Nirvana. To this, he just laughed. In doing so, he became at peace with the greater consciousness by overcoming his final desire.

Therefore, my friend, I issue a word of caution when approaching the Eightfold Way. Let these principles guide you as the unknowable north guides the geese. For if you approach my teachings as a recipe then you are bound for much suffering. Above all else, you must learn to not cling to even the notion of your own existence and consequently, must not desire even for your own enlightenment. We must instead find a middle way, between self-denial to the point of starvation and a life lived for egoistic gain. We must be like the dancing monk: not seeking to attain enlightenment, but actually attaining it.

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Works Cited

Soka Gakkiai International. Buddhist Myths, Parables and Stories. Web.

Moore, B. N. & Bruder, K. (2005). Philosophy: The power of ideas (6th ed.) Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

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