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Beyond Mindfulness: How Is Buddhist Thought Relevant Today?

In an era of COVID-19 and climate change, Buddhist psychology provides a guide.

Key points

  • Buddhism has a rich psychological tradition of which mindfulness is one element.
  • The Four Noble Truths offer an understanding of the universal human experience of suffering, stress, and unease.
  • The Noble Eightfold Path provides a guide to overcoming suffering and un-satisfactoriness.
 Wouter de Jong/Pexels
Buddhist thought emphasizes positive action to effect change.
Source: Wouter de Jong/Pexels

The enduring popularity of Buddhist ideas is evident in the ubiquity of “mindfulness” in our world today. The broader value of Buddhist psychological principles is, however, sometimes lost in the profusion of news stories, books, websites, and apps that clamour for attention. It is useful to look directly at Buddhist teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path, to see their full relevance in our lives today.

Four Noble Truths

Buddhism suggests that suffering, stress, or unease is part of our usual experience of the world. The Four Noble Truths offer a paradigm for addressing this universal experience. As a result, they retain their relevance and merit close attention today.

The first noble truth is the existence of duhkha, which is often translated as “suffering,” although it can also mean “pain,” “stress,” or “unease.” In essence, duhkha refers to the un-satisfactoriness of much of human experience and behaviour, and points to a need to identify the root cause of duhkha and overcome it.

The second noble truth is the cause of duhkha. In Buddhist tradition, duhkha results from craving (also translated as “attachment” or “grasping”), aversion, and delusion. As humans, we desire objects and activities that increase enjoyment; we are averse to those that do not, and we tend to look away from reality much of the time (“delusion”).

Most generations believe that they experience un-satisfactoriness or duhkha to a greater degree than previous generations did, but un-satisfactoriness is a constant feature of the human experience. Today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this sense of un-satisfactoriness is especially evident in increased rates of anxiety and depression across the populations of virtually all countries. It seems that there is duhkha everywhere, owing, in part, to COVID-19 and related public health restrictions, but also owing to pre-existing circumstances and our own habitual reactions to difficulty.

With this in mind, the third noble truth appears especially relevant, as it states that suffering can cease, provided we face duhkha and overcome craving, aversion, and delusion. This is the final aim of Buddhist practice and is known as nirvana or nibbana. The fourth noble truth concerns the way that suffering can be overcome through the Noble Eightfold Path, based on the key principles of wisdom, moral virtue, and meditation.

Noble Eightfold Path

The path to the alleviation of suffering, the fourth noble truth, centres on the Noble Eightfold Path, which is also described as the “middle way.” It involves right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Buddhism takes the position that, rather than simply believing in this paradigm, adherents should try this approach in their own lives and observe the results.

This aspect of Buddhism makes Buddhist thought especially suited to the modern world, combining the accumulated wisdom of the past with current and future challenges during the present period of human and global change.

Today, the challenge to right action has never been more urgent: COVID-19 and climate change are just two of the pressing issues that face the world right now. Buddhism emphasizes not only the Four Noble Truths and, with them, the Noble Eightfold Path, but also the inter-dependent nature of existence and the unskilfulness of clinging to the idea of an individual, isolated “self."

No self

De-emphasizing the notion of “self” means recognizing that perceived phenomena (including the self) are dependent on specific causes and conditions for their apparent existence and, as a result, are without permanence or, in a sense, independent existence. In other words, for every phenomenon (including the self) there is a collection of causes and conditions which give rise to it. All of these causes, conditions, and phenomena (including the self) are in a state of continuous change, according to Buddhist thought.

This teaching emphasizes not only the inter-connectedness that we have seen so vividly during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the profound, existential, interdependent challenge presented to the world by climate change.

This teaching is a very optimistic one, highlighting not only the continuity and connection between all sentient beings, but also the inevitably of change—which we can influence for good. Given that we inhabit a world in the throes of a deadly pandemic and on the verge of climate-driven destruction, it can be argued that Buddhist thought has never been more relevant or necessary than it is today.

Implicit in these ideas is the imperative to act. Faith is neither required nor sufficient. Action is needed: mindfulness practices, compassionate community-building, engagement with social issues, and enhanced recognition of the fundamental interdependence of all sentient beings and our planet.

References

Batchelor, S. (1997). Buddhism without beliefs: A contemporary guide to awakening. London: Bloomsbury.

De Sousa, G.M., Tavares, V. D. O., de Meiroz Grilo, M. L. P., Coelho, M. L. G., de Lima-Araújo, G. L., Schuch, F. B., & Galvão-Coelho, N.L. (2021). Mental health in COVID-19 pandemic: A meta-review of prevalence meta-analyses. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 703838. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.703838

Gethin, R. (1998). The foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Harvey, P. (1990) An introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, history and practices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kelly, B.D. (2019). The doctor who sat for a year. Dublin: Gill Books.

Ward E. (2021). Self. Cork: Cork University Press

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