The Buddha taught the middle path. In the first sermon known as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta,15 or the Turning of the Wheel of the Dhamma, the Buddha taught that seekers of truth must avoid two extremes—that of the path of sensual pleasure, and that of extreme penance or austerity.This middle path he explained by means of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
The Four Noble Truths
- There is suffering.
- Suffering has a cause: craving.
- If craving ceases, suffering ceases.
- There is a path leading to the cessation of suffering. 16
This path leading to the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path. It is divided into three divisions of sīla—moral living, samādhi—control of the mind, and paññā—total purification of the mind by wisdom and insight.
The Eightfold Path
- Right view (sammā-diṭṭhi).
- Right thought (sammā-saṅkappo).
Moral Conduct (Sīla)
- Right speech (sammā-vācā).
- Right action (sammā-kammanto).
- Right livelihood (sammā-ājīvo).
Control of Mind (Samādhi)
- Right effort (sammā-vāyāmo).
- Right awareness (sammā-sati).
- Right concentration (sammā-samādhi).
The Law of Dependent Origination
The Buddha explained the working of the Four Noble Truths by means of the Law of Dependent Origination (paṭiccasamuppāda).
"With ignorance and craving as our companions, we have been flowing in the stream of repeated existences from time immemorial. We come into existence and experience various types of miseries, die, and are reborn again and again without putting an end to this unbroken process of becoming." 17 The Buddha said that this is saṃsāra.
He further said: "Rightly understanding the perils of this process, realizing fully ‘craving’ as its cause, becoming free from the past accumulations, and not creating new ones in the future, one should mindfully lead the life of detachment."18 One whose craving is uprooted finds his mind has become serene, and achieves a state where there is no becoming at all. This is the state of nibbāna, freedom from suffering.
A closer look at the workings of the Law of Dependent Origination will show clearly how this process of becoming can be stopped, and liberation realised.19 There are twelve interconnected links in the circular chain of becoming:
- Dependent on ignorance (avijjā), reactions (saṅkhārā) arise,
- dependent on reactions, consciousness (viññāṇa) arises,
- dependent on consciousness, mind and body (nāma-rūpa) arise,
- dependent on mind and body, the six sense doors (saḷāyatana) arise,
- dependent on the six sense doors, contact (phassa) arises,
- dependent on contact, sensation (vedanā) arises,
- dependent on sensation, craving (taṇhā) arises,
- dependent on craving, clinging (upādāna) arises,
- dependent on clinging, becoming (bhava) arises,
- dependent on becoming, birth (jāti) arises,
- dependent on birth, decay and death (jarā, maraṇa) arise.
This shows that depending on one, there is the origin of the other. The former serves as the cause, and the latter results as the effect. This chain is the process responsible for our misery. By the practice of Vipassana meditation this process can be stopped.
To break this unending chain of existences, the Buddha found by means of his own personal experience that suffering arises because of craving (taṇhā). Exploring the depths of his mind, he realized that between the external object and the mental reaction of craving there is a link—the body sensations (vedanā). Whenever one encounters an object through the five physical senses or the mind, a sensation arises in the body. And based on the sensation, craving arises. If the sensation is pleasant one craves to prolong it; if the sensation is unpleasant one craves to get rid of it. In the chain of Dependent Origination the Buddha expressed this discovery: dependent on contact sensation arises, dependent on sensation craving arises.20 The immediate and actual cause for the arising of craving and of suffering is, therefore, not something outside of us but rather the sensations that occur within us. To free ourselves of craving and of suffering we must deal with this inner reality, that is, with sensations (vedanā). This was a unique contribution of the Buddha’s teaching.
The habit of an untrained mind is to relish sensations, to generate craving with every sensation experienced. By learning to observe them, however, one comes to see that all sensations are impermanent and that any attachment to them causes suffering. Gradually one learns to refrain from reacting with craving towards the sensations by adopting the stance of an impartial observer, appreciating all sensations as manifestations of an essenceless, changing reality. In the process, the accumulated conditioning of the mind (saṅkhārā) are gradually eradicated. The more one observes dispassionately, the more layers of past conditioning are eradicated until one reaches the stage where the mind is freed from the habit of reacting with craving. As a result, the process "dependent on sensation craving arises," changes into "dependent on sensation wisdom arises," and the vicious circle of misery is arrested. This gradual process of purification is Vipassana. The Buddha said, "I have shown a step-by-step extinguishing of mental conditioning." 21 Each step is taken by observing body sensations (vedanā). This is the path that leads to the final goal, a goal that all can attain through the practice of Vipassana meditation, the practical application of the middle way shown by the compassionate Buddha.