The Buddha’s most important teachings concerned basic truths about existence and advice about how his followers should live. He told people that their lives were part of a repeating cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. The Buddha summed up the problems that most humans have to endure in Four Noble Truths about suffering. He then offered a way to overcome suffering through the Noble Eightfold Path. This path allows some people to break free from the cycle of rebirth and achieve the state of enlightenment.
THE FIRST SERMON
After his enlightenment, the Buddha went to a deer park in Sarnath, near the city of Benares in northern India. He explained to others the truths that had come to him under the Bodhi Tree and told them how they too might reach the state of enlightenment known as nibbana.
WHEEL OF LAW
The Buddha’s sermon in Sarnath became known as “the first turning of the Wheel of Law.” The Buddha’s teachings are also referred to as the dhamma, which means doctrine, truth, or law. The dhamma sums up the essence of the Buddha’s ideas about human suffering and the way to end it.
The endless cycle through the realms of rebirth is known as samsara. Buddhists believe that when a person dies he or she is reborn and a new being is created. This new being could be an animal or even one of the gods. Buddhists do not believe in an essential soul or self, so each reborn being is distinct from the previous life.
WHEEL OF LIFE
Tibetan Buddhists illustrate the cycle of rebirth with the Wheel of Life. The main body of the wheel shows the six realms into which one can be reborn. These are the realms of gods, humans, animals, asuras (warlike demons), hungry spirits, and Hell. Around the edge of the wheel, 12 scenes show how kamma works in human life.
This Chinese banner shows the bodhisattva Kshitigarbha, known as “the master of the six realms of rebirth.” Buddhists aim to break free of the cycle of samsara by achieving enlightenment, or nibbana. Few reach this state, but all hope for a favorable rebirth. This means passing at the end of each life to a higher realm of rebirth, so moving closer and closer to nibbana.
Kamma means action or activity. It is important to Buddhists because it is part of the law of cause and effect. This means that a person’s actions their thoughts, words, and deeds influence their next rebirth. Good actions will lead to a more favorable rebirth than bad ones.
This painting shows the Buddha helping a monk who is suffering through illness. The Four Noble Truths at the center of the Buddha’s teachings are closely linked to human suffering. The Buddha saw that people suffer when they crave things they cannot have. For example, people may crave eternal life, even though everyone has to die.
The Middle Way
There are Four Noble Truths at the center of the Buddha’s teachings: all life is suffering, the cause of suffering is craving, the end of suffering comes with release from craving, and the release from suffering comes from following the Noble Eightfold Path. In order to follow the moral guidance of the Noble Eightfold Path, Buddhists must find the balance between luxury and hardship known as the Middle Way. They do not usually wear fancy clothes or rags, instead they dress practically. They do not normally feast or fast, instead they share simple meals.
The animals in the center of the Wheel of Life symbolize three faults that the Buddha believed people must overcome. These faults are hatred, ignorance, and greed all of which involve craving. Hatred involves the craving to destroy. Ignorance and greed bring about craving unnecessary things. The three animals chase each other in an endless circle, symbolizing the strong link between the three faults.
This Tibetan mural shows the Buddha teaching the Noble Eightfold Path. The eight parts of this path are right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The path teaches Buddhists how to overcome greed, hatred, and ignorance, which lead to suffering.
CONSEQUENCES OF CRAVING
These figures are wrapped up in the world of desire and craving and are ignoring the Noble Eightfold Path. Buddhists believe that it is important to find release from craving because craving leads to moral faults. These faults can, in turn, bring about a poor rebirth.
PEACE AND HARMONY
The Buddha said that people should behave in a caring way toward other living things to encourage harmony in the world. This is known as right action. He taught people not to harm or kill other beings and not to steal. Early Buddhists reinforced this advice with Five Moral Precepts. These are to avoid harming others, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking drugs and alcohol.
THE RIGHT JOB
Doi Suthep-Doi forest in Thailand is protected and cared for by Buddhist monks. Buddhists try to observe the Noble Eightfold Path in their livelihood, or work, just as they do in the rest of their lives. They avoid jobs that involve causing suffering to others, such as working as a butcher or trading in arms, and try to do work that benefits other living things. This is known as right livelihood.
The qualities of the Noble Eightfold Path are often represented on stupa spires by a series of eight discs. The Wheel of Law has eight spokes and the stupa in Borobudur is made up of eight levels. This repeated use of the number eight reminds Buddhists of the importance of the Noble Eightfold Path. The eight parts are of equal importance. Buddhists aim to practice them all together because they reinforce each other.
The Buddha described three things, or Three Precious Jewels, for Buddhists to turn to when trying to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. They are the Buddha himself, his dhamma, or teachings, and the monastic community known as the sangha. Buddhists remember the Three Precious Jewels, which are often represented by three gems, every time they take the Triple Refuge.