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The Object of Life and the Means of Its Attainment

Graeme Lyall

(A talk by Graeme Lyall given to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association of Australia on Religious Founders' Day, Al Masjid bait ul Huda, 5th May, 1996)


I am delighted to be able to share this important occasion with you, the centenary of the publication of the book, "Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam". I am dealing with one of the themes of the book, "The Object of Life and the Means of its Attainment".

What, then, is the object of life? To this question people will give diverse answers. Some may say - to make a lot of money. Why do people want money? Because they believe that this will bring them many material posessions which, they imagine, will bring them happiness. Can material posessions bring happiness? To a limited extent, they can, but is one really satisfied? Usually it’s the case that no matter what you have you can always envisage having something better or bigger. These posessions can also be the cause of anxiety for fear of losing them. A story from the Buddha’s time tells of the Buddha sitting by the side of the road with some of his monks when a farmer came by looking very distressed. "Did you see a herd of cows pass this way?" he asked. "No!" said the Buddha. "Oh dear!" said the farmer, " I have lost all of my cows and last year there was no rain and my crops failed. I’m so unhappy. My life is ruined". After he had gone, the Buddha turned to his monks and said, " Monks, aren’t you fortunate that you don’t own any cows?". There is always present a craving or attachment. This craving or attachment, whether it be for material things, friends or family can be a source of sorrow - the opposite of happiness. This sorrow or unsatisfactoriness is described in the Buddha’s teachings as ‘dukkha’, whereas happiness, which most people seek is called ‘sukkha’. The Buddha taught that the nature of life is dukkha. Most of us would prefer to experience sukkha but the very fact that our happy states don’t last, makes them, in effect, unsatisfying or sorrowful. The object of life, for most of us, then is to find happiness - a lasting happiness, but, life by its very nature is full of sorrow.

The essence of the Buddha’s teaching is contained in the Four Noble Truths, the first of which states that "Life is, by its very nature, dukkha, unsatisfying or frustrating". Dukkha is often translated as ‘suffering’ but it is much more than that. It certainly means physical and mental suffering but it also means that life is full of frustrations - we would always prefer things to be other than the way they are. As we grow old, we wish we could remain young. If we are poor, we wish we could be rich. When we are separated from our friends and loved ones, or, in the case of the farmer, our possessions, we are saddened. Dukkha includes birth, sickness, old age, pain and despair, separation from those whom we like and association with those whom we dislike. All of these are examples of Dukkha and that is the First Noble Truth. No matter what is the nature of things in life, we always crave for them to be other than the way they are. We don’t want to face the fact that life is unsatisfactory or frustrating. We always seek to relieve this unsatisfactoriness by craving for more of this or more of that.

This brings us to the second of the Four Noble Truths which tells us that the cause of dukkha is rooted in what are known as the three poisons, greed or attachment, anger or hatred and a deluded mind. We tend to be attached to people and material things and when we are separated from them, we suffer regret. We cling to these things as if they will last forever and we find it hard to accept the fact that they don’t. We get angry or have aversions to those things that we do not like. Buddhism teaches that anger harms the one who is angry more than the object to which this anger is directed. Anger causes heating of the blood and an unpleasant appearance. The more we get angry with someone and they react to our anger the more this anger increases. Anger is unproductive - it doesn’t solve any problems. Our minds are deluded because we do not see things as they really are - that is, subject to impermanence (anicca, Pali), frustrating (dukkha, Pali) and devoid of a permanent self or substance (anatta, Pali). Everything, material or immaterial, is subject to change or impermanence. Perhaps you are sitting comfortably in your chairs at the moment. If you remain in that chair for the next three hours, without moving, do you still think you could regard the chair as comfortable? If you remained fixed in that chair for a month, you would probably find that you are crippled and unable to move. If you remain in that chair for a hundred years, you will probably be a skeleton and the chair will be fairly seedy too. What starts as being regarded as ‘comfortable’ can soon change to being uncomfortable. Everything is relative. The way we see things depends on the time, place and current situation. We, ourselves, are subject to this change. Every cell in our body is constantly aging and dying and being replaced. Our thoughts and ideas are constantly changing or being modified. Your thoughts and ideas, since you arrived in this beautiful mosque, are different from before you arrived. They have changed considerably. Is there anything in you, which is not subject to this change? I don’t think so. This is why Buddhists say, in the ultimate sense, there is no ‘you’ or unchanging self entity. There is no ghost in the machine pressing the buttons. This concept of change and the comprehension of the idea of "no self’ is difficult to accept and is, therefore, Dukkha.

The third Noble Truth concerns the overcoming of Dukka, that is, overcoming the greed, anger and delusion that are the source of Dukkha. Accepting change as a characteristic of life and not becoming angry or frustrated about it is part of the way to overcoming Dukkha. This overcoming of Dukkha is termed "Nirvana". Nirvana is not a place but could be described as a state of mind - a mind that sees things as they really are and not clouded by delusion. Yet it is more than just a state of mind. It transcends speculation and description. The Buddha spoke of it thus: ‘Monks, there is an unborn, a not-become, a not-made, a not-compounded. Monks, if that unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, there would be apparent no escape from this that here is born, become, made, compounded. But, monks, since there is an unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded, therefore the escape from this that here is born, become, made and compounded is apparent.’ Some may refer to this unborn, not-become, not-made, not compounded as God. Buddhists, however, are reluctant to use the term "God". God means different things to different people. Some will say that it refers to an anthropomorphic being like ourselves who created the world whilst others, such as the Christian Philosopher of Religion, Paul Tillich, suggests that God is the ‘ground of being’ - the very fact of existence, whereas others prefer not to define God because such things as descriptions are inadequate when speaking of the transcendental. It is because of the confusion surrounding meaning of the term "God" that Buddhists avoid using the term altogether. Buddhists speak of Nirvana - that which is unborn, not-become, not-made, and not-compounded. Nirvana is not anihilation, as many non-Buddhists claim but is a state beyond becoming - a transcendental state. It is beyond comparison with anything that we can know in the world so how can we define it? All descriptions are inadequate.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the method taught by the Buddha for attaining this state of Nirvana. It is the Noble Eightfold Path. You may be wondering why the term ‘Noble’(Ariya) is used for the Path. One who walks the Path is considered to be a noble or worthy person. The eight steps of the Path are: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Right Understanding is knowledge that the Four Noble Truths lead to the overcoming of Dukkha. It does not imply a total understanding of these Truths but a confidence that, by following the Path, the result, Nirvana, will be attained. Right Thought is to be constantly aware of one’s thoughts and actions and thereby avoiding harm to any living creature. Right Speech is awareness of one’s speech so that, what one says, is beneficial to the hearer. Right Action is to be aware of one’s actions and observe the five precepts of avoiding the taking of life, taking what is not given to you, sexual misconduct, lying and deceiving and the partaking of alcohol and drugs which tend to distort the mind. Essentially one should avoid any action which may cause harm to oneself or any other living creature. Right Livelihood is to earn one’s living in a way that does not cause harm or suffering. Such occupations as the selling of intoxicants, firearms or animals for slaughter would be considered inappropriate for Buddhists. Right Effort is the avoiding of evil which has not already arisen, rejecting evil which has already arisen, the acquiring of wholesome things which have not yet been acquired and the stabilising of those wholesome characteristics that have already been acquired. Right Mindfulness is training in constant awareness of the effects of one’s actions, whether of body, speech or mind, and thus avoiding harmful actions. Right Concentration is cultivating the mind through concentration and meditation so that one attains intuitive insight.

Meditation (Bhavana) is a central part of Buddhist practice. In the Theravadin tradition, two forms of meditation, calm (Samatha) and insight (Vipassana) are recognised as essential practice in achieving spiritual progress. Calming the mind is achieved by concentration on a specific object and excluding all extraneous thoughts. Often, the breath or the movement of the diaphragm is used as a suitable object for concentration. At other times, objects, such as coloured discs (Kasinas) or meditation beads (Mala) or even counting the breaths are used to fix the mind during this preliminary practice. This concentration practice, calms the mind and induces a feeling of well-being. It is also a necessary practice for gaining one-pointedness of mind or full concentration. Once the mind has been trained in concentration, the meditator can then reflect on the feelings and sensations of the body, noting them as they arise and pass away. This latter practice is known as Vipassana and is the means of cultivating insight or mindfulness.

In the Cha’n (Zen, Japanese) tradition, two techniques are employed. One method is to concentrate on the breath and then try to clear the mind of all thoughts whatsoever. This method eliminates the constant chatter of the mind and results in an awakening (satori). Another Cha’an technique is to ponder a question (Kung-an, Chinese, Koan, Japanese), which has no rational answer. Typical koans are, "what was your face before you were born?" "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" or the word "Mu". These techniques are aimed at pushing the mind beyond rational thought in order to experience the ultimate awakening.

A technique used by the Pure Land Sect of the Mahayana is to constantly recite the name (nien-fo, Chinese, nembutsu, Japanese) of the Buddha of infinite light, Amitabha Buddha (Omi t’o-Fo, Chinese, Amida Butsu, Japanese). This, again, is a means of fixing the mind on one object and not dissimilar to repetitions of prayers used by many Christians. The result is a calmed mind, and, according to Pure Land Buddhism, rebirth in the Pure Land where enlightenment may be attained by listening to the teaching of Buddha Amitabha.

Most Buddhists believe that, upon the disolution of the body, rebirth may take place in a state consistent with the qualities of the consciousness energy, or resultant of past actions (karma) at the time of death. This rebirth may occur in human form, animal form, as a ghost (preta), in a blissful state (deva) or in a woeful state. Each of these states is impermanent and lasts as long as the karmic energy, which resulted in that rebirth state, sustains it. In other words, we are subject to a constant round of rebirths (Samsara) until Nirvana, or the release from rebirth is attained.

In summary, then, the object of the Buddhist life is the overcoming of Dukkha or the unsatisfactory nature of life. In the process of overcoming this Dukkha, one empathises with the Dukkha of others and identifies with them. By this means we tend to see all creatures as one in this sea of suffering and thus we cultivate compassion for all living creatures. All have the potential, the seed of enlightenment or Buddha nature within them so we see each living creature as a potential Buddha. Once we see that all creatures have Buddha nature, we can overcome anger and aversion - two of the poisons that are the source of Dukkha. By following the Noble Eightfold Path, we have a tried and proven means of overcoming our deluded minds and attaining the wisdom to realise the bliss of Nirvana. May you all be well and happy.

Graeme Lyall
Australia, 1996