Book Summary: Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha

To summarize the main ideas:

Thinking is not a substitute for lived experience. The idea of being a mother, combat veteran, a disciple of a spiritual teacher – pick any experience you don’t have – and having the idea about it is not the same as having lived it. And, it is worse than that, many of the experiences we do have, we’ve replaced the experience with thoughts, so we are alienating ourselves from our own lived experience, at practically every moment.

The substitution of our ideas for our lived experience is the source of our suffering. The idea of self, preferences and aversions for certain experiences, etc., all work to alienate us from our actual experience. The way to counteract this effect is by the three trainings: morality, concentration, and wisdom.

Morality is everything we do in the ordinary world that requires judgment and planning. Concentration is the ability to settle your mind on what you wish. Wisdom comes from focusing our attention on our lived experience to the point that we see it clearly, not through abstractions. Through these three trainings, we can improve our receptiveness, our focus and these will lead to a fundamental realization of what’s real and what is mind-made.

The unreal has three characteristics: impermanence, dissatisfactoriness, and no-self. Everything is impermanent. If nothing is permanent, then the person at birth is not the same as the person you are now. This is equally true, no matter how thinly you slice time. The person you were a nanosecond ago is not the same person you are right now. It is our desire to reject that reality for permanence, of condition and of self, that gives rise to dissatisfaction.

Drop to the level of sensations. The only thing that is real is what you are experiencing in this moment, and even then, by the time it registers, it is over. Everything is a phantom – memories of the past, plans for the future, ideas about the present and even sensate experience is over before we realize it. This is why it is difficult to understand what is real.

On the path to understanding the real, there are five spiritual faculties to cultivate: faith, wisdom, energy, concentration and mindfulness. The first four can be thought of as wheels on the bullock cart with mindfulness as the driver. Balance faith/wisdom and energy/concentration. Then, strengthen and balance them again.

Awakening is achieved through seven factors: mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. The hindrances are sensory desire, ill-will/malice, sloth/turpor, restlessness/worry and doubt. Finding the right balance between focus and ease is the secret to a good life.

What makes it good? We are able to access peace and happiness by turning our minds to them. By renouncing certain aspects of life, we cut off sources of suffering. Just knowing that it is possible, right here in this life, right now, to be free of suffering is a huge relief.

These are the Four Noble Truths. You’re going to be dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction has a cause. It can end, and we have a method to end it. No need for heaven, secret teachings or being a saint. All you need to do is follow the instructions. If four is too much, all you need is one idea. Suffering can end.

There are people walking around right now that are enlightened. It wasn’t just back in Buddha’s day. You may know a person who is enlightened. If you don’t, perhaps you could. How?

Buddhists talk about the Noble Eightfold Path.

  • Morality: right speech, right action, right livelihoo
  • Concentration: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration
  • Wisdom: right view, right intention

If you want to make quick progress, then:

  1. Do lots of practice in daily life
  2. Go on more and longer retreats
  3. Consistently concentrate and develop the ability to investigate quickly and precisely
  4. Pay attention more often in their daily activities
  5. Be morally together

The best time to meditate is any time you can, preferably right now. With strong enough concentration, our whole inner landscape becomes subject to our control.

The Dreamer & The Judge

The dreamer is in no position to judge what is real or who is awake. The first task of the dreamer is to awaken and of the judge is to make sure the evidence is admissible. Everything else is a kangaroo court of suffering.

Coffin, Cage or Cocoon?

Imagine being put in a box. Is it a small prison cell? Is it so small that you cannot move, a torture technique out of the middle ages or some 9/11 black site of torture? Imagine dying, and being reborn in the same box. Imagine a life that is a dying and an awakening and a dying again, a Groundhog Day of suffering.

What would freedom mean, in this circumstance? Would release from the cycle, physical death constitute freedom? Would being released from the box by outside forces, returning to the life we had before the box be freedom? Or is freedom taking the experience of the box and using it for transformation, to become something more than what we were before?

Coffin, cage or cocoon. Choose one.

Happiness of Others

Make one person happy. Ideally, the one before you, in this moment. Listen. Understand their story, if you can. But, never more than one, and don’t have it be the focus of all your energy. You cannot make other people happy. We can choose to be happy, ourselves. In others, we can only help create the conditions. In then end, they must choose, and in some conditions, it’s an impossible choice. The crucified are never happy. The only option is for their suffering to end.

Words & Worldviews

I was reading another one of those end of year life hack articles yesterday, about how changing one word can change your attitude toward obligations. The crux: instead of saying, “I have to wake up to go to work at 0600,” you change it to get, “I get to wake up to go to work at 0600.”

This simple substitution changes your attitude toward what you are doing. It is now phrased in terms of an opportunity. It makes you wonder what kind of changes would happen by reframing traditional ideas in a positive fashion.

Instead of a Ten Commandments of “Thou shall not kill” you could reframe it in a positive, “Thou shall be peaceful and help all living beings flourish.” The words we use create our worldview.

This is an important point. Our attitudes, our opinions, our ways of looking at the world are created whole cloth in our minds. They don’t exist out there in the world. They exist only in our minds. Ideas are exchanged between minds through symbols. It is our acceptance of them that gives them the appearance of being real.

In Buddhism, this is the fundamental problem of life. The mind creates fictions. We believe that we are our thoughts and emotions. We are dissatisfied with the world. We wish it to be other than it is or worry that a satisfactory situation will change (as it always does). We want to be more powerful, famous, rich, beautiful, taller, more intelligent, stronger, thinner, etc. All of which are ego delusion that assumes that the way we view the world is how the world really is and that you would be better off if you got what you wanted (even though you most likely would just want something else).

While it would be nice to be able to take the world as it comes and live in the moment as an enlightened Buddha, very few of us are there yet. In the meantime, we free to find meaning in life, even in situations of terrible suffering such as in the concentration camp Victor Frankl lived in.

In comfortable circumstances, why choose suffering? You get to choose to look at the world any way that you want. Why not start the New Year by improving your worldview and your outlook? Why not start by taking an accounting of what is really needed, how much we have and being grateful for so much abundance?

The Ones Worth Suffering For

If she’s amazing, / she won’t be easy. / If she’s easy, / she won’t be amazing.

If she’s worth it, / you won’t give up. / If you give up, / you’re not worthy.

Truth is / everybody is going / to hurt you, / you just gotta / find the ones / worth suffering for.

—hightower