The Noble Eightfold Blog


Reverse Engineering the Buddha's Enlightenment

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn

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A short time ago I read a book by H.W. Schumann called “The Historical Buddha” in which Schumann discusses the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment. As scholarly Buddhists know, on the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he had three realizations, one each on a “watch of the night.” In the first watch of the night, the Buddha saw into his previous lives. In the second watch of the night, he saw how all beings are born and reborn according to their kamma. And in the third watch of the night, he saw the Four Noble Truths. [MN 36]

As I was pondering this, I found myself unable to connect the dots. How the Buddha’s mind went from realizations 1 to 2 and 2 to 3 didn’t really make sense to me. This is especially true of the distance he had to go to get from realization 2 to realization 3. “How”, I thought, “Did he make the connection between beings reborn according to their kamma to the Four Noble Truths?” That seemed like quite a leap in philosophical distance.

So I started to think about the connection between those two things. Like most people, when I am trying to understand something new, I use whatever I have in my own experience that is analogous. In my case this is my training as a software engineer, particularly what I know about problem solving and how to think about problems, and how to work a problem. So I gave myself the task of trying to reverse engineer the Buddha’s thinking on that night. It’s a little like seeing the final board in a chess game, being given a few other snap shots of the game as it progressed, and trying to figure out what all the other moves were.

I think most people have the idea that when you are first presented with a problem, that the next step is to start trying to come up with a solution. This is, in my experience, a mistake, and where a lot of problem solving goes wrong.

Of course, in my first 5 years or so of being a software engineer, this is exactly what I did. A problem would come up and wham! There I would go, right into a list of possible solutions, and then you and others start to critique the plusses and minuses of each one. Some of them turn out to be way off the mark, because you didn’t take the time to properly understand the problem in the first place. Trying to solve a problem in this way is a little like throwing stuff up against the refrigerator and seeing if anything sticks. It’s the shotgun approach, and it is not the most intellectually rigorous – or efficient - way to work.

What I learned over time was to slow down, to make sure that the problem being considered was, in fact, the right problem, and that it was being properly characterized. More often than not, the problem being presented wasn’t the right one, or simply wasn’t clearly defined.

This happened so often over the years that it became an instinctive part of how I worked. Someone would come to me and ask me to implement something. My very next question was, “Well, what is the problem that you are trying to solve?” Very often they didn’t know, or at least they couldn’t explain it. Then we would spend some time trying to understand what they were attempting to do. Sometimes I didn’t end up having to do anything; there was a solution simply in thinking about the problem differently.

Another thing I learned over the years was to spend more and more time simply understanding the problem. You start asking a lot of questions. How is the problem similar to something you have done before? Is it like this or like this? You try and see if it looks like something else that is analogous. You poke at it for a while and you let it simmer.

One of the things this does is lead to a more passive – more Zen-like (that over-used word!) – approach to problem solving. When it comes to structuring data, for example, I came to think of that process as being the ability to understand “how the data wants to be”. The better you understand the problem, the more likely you are to see how a problem wants to be solved, rather than how “you” want to solve it.

Here is an example of what I mean. Suppose you are commissioned to build a bridge. One approach is to pull out a piece of paper and start drawing bridge designs. That is kind of fun, but it is a little premature. A more disciplined approach would be to start data gathering. What kind of soil is along the banks? How much traffic will there be? What is the highest flood level of the river? What is the wind like? And so forth. As you begin to uncover more information about the problem, solutions start to suggest themselves.

I think that one reason more people don’t approach problem solving in this way is that it is hard work and relatively unglamorous. It’s much more fun to pull out that piece of paper and start drawing. But I think that most creative problem solvers do their homework. Natalie Goldberg, in her book “Writing Down the Bones” says this about writing, “Many people want to write, but not very many people want to learn how to write.” The creative process has a lot more heavy lifting than most people want to do. Leonardo da Vinci spent an entire year learning how to paint fabric.

So what does this have to do with the Buddha?

The Buddha presented himself with a very interesting problem. It is telling, in fact, just what problem he selected. The Buddha wanted to solve the problem of human suffering. When it comes to picking a problem to solve, he picked a Duesie.

The Buddha lived during the Axial Age, the golden age of human philosophical thinking. In places like China, Greece and India all sorts of creative thinking was going on about the basic problems in life. During this 500-year period, almost all of the major philosophies in the world came into being.

These different philosophical traditions defined the “problem” in different ways. Some were concerned with the origins of the universe. Some were concerned with the afterlife. Some were concerned with how to live in social harmony. Some were concerned with the existence of God or gods. But the Buddha defined his problem as that of the fundamental question of human suffering, or, to put a more positive spin on it, how to be happy, and really happy, not just “I got a new high-def TV” happy.

India was a particularly interesting case. India developed a sort of spiritual-seeking infrastructure. On one side was the Big Religion on the Block, Brahmanism. Brahmanism was pre-Hinduism, and was the established religious institution of its time.

In contrast were the samaṇa, the wandering renunciates, and a whole social system evolved around their existence. Outside of each city in India was a park set aside for their use. It was just outside the gates to the city, and it was there to provide a place for the samaṇa to live. They lived on alms food, which they received once a day in the morning. Basically they lived on leftovers. During the monsoon season they lived in these parks, and during the rest of the year they traveled about, rarely staying in one place more than a day.

The transportation system in India at that time was organized around the distance measurement of a yojana – about 9 miles - which was the distance that an ox could travel before it needed food and water. There were way stations at each yojana point, and the samaṇa would use these as break points in their journeys. The samaṇa spent their mornings on alms rounds, their afternoons traveling the next yojana, and their evenings meditating, doing yoga, debating, or whatever their tradition prescribed.

There were many different groups of samaṇa. There were the Ājīvikas, who were fatalists, the Jains, who proscribe a path of non-violence towards all living beings, skeptics, who thought that you could not understand the nature of life, spiritual materialists, who do not believe in an afterlife, and so forth. Since they all stayed in the same places, there was a vibrant culture of inquiry, discussion and debate. It is also noteworthy that Indian society considered their existence important enough to provide for their welfare. To this day there is a great deal of respect for religious seekers in India, no matter what the path.

It was against this backdrop that the Buddha emerged. He was, of course, born into a very wealthy family in the land of Sākya, which today is on the Nepali-Indian border. By his own account, “I lived a spoilt, a very spoilt life.”

“I was delicately brought up, O monks; highly delicate, exceedingly delicate was my upbringing. At my father’s house lotus ponds were made: in one of them blue lotuses bloomed, in another white lotuses, and in a third red lotuses, just for my enjoyment. I used only sandal unguent from Benares and my head dress, my jacket, my undergarment, and my tunic were made of Benares muslin. By day and by night a white canopy was held over me, lest cold and heat, dust, chaff or dew should trouble me. I had three palaces: one for the summer, one for the winter and one for the rainy season. In the palace for the rainy season, during the four months of the rains, I was waited upon by female musicians only, and I did not come down from the palace during these months. While in other people’s homes servants and slaves receive a meal of broken rice together with sour gruel, in my father’s house they were given choice rice and meat.” [AN 3.38]

But he was also by some accounts a listless young man, sensitive, with “a leaning towards reflection.” In his privileged position he would have had access to both the Brahman teachers of the time, as well as the samaṇa. It would have been a ripe culture in which to cultivate the inquisitive Siddhattha‘s mind.

Thus we arrive at the first realization of the future Buddha. He sees into the nature of his life, and sees that this wealthy, self-indulgent lifestyle will not solve his problem of human suffering:

“Amidst such splendor and an entirely carefree life, O monks, this thought came to me, ’An uninstructed worldling, though sure to become old himself and unable to escape ageing, feels repelled, humiliated and disgusted when seeing an old and decrepit person, being forgetful of his own situation. Now I too am sure to become old and cannot escape ageing. If, when seeing an old and decrepit person, I were to feel repelled, humiliated or disgusted, that would not be proper for one like myself.’ When I reflected thus, monks, all my pride in youthfulness vanished.

Again I reflected, ‘An uninstructed worldling, though sure to become ill himself and unable to escape illness, feels repelled, humiliated or disgusted when seeing a sick person, being forgetful of his own situation. Now I too am sure to become ill and cannot escape illness. If, when seeing a sick person, I were to feel repelled, humiliated or disgusted, that would not be proper for one like myself.’

When I thus reflected, monks, all my pride in health vanished.

Again I reflected: ‘An uninstructed worldling is sure to die himself and cannot escape death; yet when seeing a dead person, he feels repelled, humiliated or disgusted, being forgetful of his own situation. Now I too am sure to die and cannot escape death. If, when seeing a dead person, I were to feel repelled, humiliated or disgusted, that would not be proper for one like myself.’ When I thus reflected, monks, all my pride in life vanished.”  [H.W. Schumann, The Historical Buddha, (Motilal Banarsidass, January 2004), 22.]

Thus, reflecting on his current life, he sees it wanting, and discards it as a solution.

I think that this step in the Buddha’s path is under-appreciated. Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Company, once said, “The 1% that we call ‘success’ is only possible because of the 99% that we call ‘failure’.” The Buddha had one model for how to live, and it was a model that not many people in the world to this day get to experience. It is very easy to fantasize about how wonderful life would be if we were rich and famous and beautiful. But when you are born into those things, it gives you an opportunity to see them for what they really are. As Siddhattha was able to deduce, wealth and beauty and fame – and in his case also power - would not bring happiness, and they certainly did not shield him from aging, sickness and death.

Siddhattha then turned to the next model that he knew about, the samaṇa. Why he did not take up with the Brahmans is an interesting question. Schumann says, “No doubt the sacrificial religion of the sixth century B.C. disappointed anyone with serious religious aspirations.”  [Schumann, 29.]

That very well may be. Whatever the case, Siddhattha took up with the samaṇa, and for the next six years he took up various spiritual practices.

The last path that he undertook was about as far away from his upbringing as one could go. He became an ascetic. His practice was so extreme that it almost killed him. At one point, he says that he was eating only a single grain of rice per day. He gives a gruesome account of how he could touch his backbone by pressing on his stomach. In Asia you sometimes see statues of the Buddha, rail-thin, with his ribs and pelvis sticking out like a human skeleton.

Eventually, after prolonged and extreme effort, he also, however, discards this path:

"I thought: 'Whatever priests or contemplatives in the past have felt painful, racking, piercing feelings due to their striving, this is the utmost. None have been greater than this. Whatever priests or contemplatives in the future will feel painful, racking, piercing feelings due to their striving, this is the utmost. None will be greater than this. Whatever priests or contemplatives in the present are feeling painful, racking, piercing feelings due to their striving, this is the utmost. None is greater than this. But with this racking practice of austerities I haven't attained any superior human state, any distinction in knowledge or vision worthy of the noble ones. Could there be another path to Awakening?’”[MN 36]

Now it starts getting really interesting. The Buddha has tried and discarded two quite opposite solutions to the problem of suffering. And in that “second path”, he tried many different variations. He had explored the various existing traditions of the samaṇa. He had learned a great deal – most notably the practice of jhāna, or meditative absorption - but at this point he had exhausted the current spiritual technologies of the time. He was on his own.

Now let’s jump ahead to the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment. By now he had started eating more healthy quantities of food. His companions, thinking he had given in to a life of self-indulgence had deserted him. He was on his own, but healthier now, and in some ways with a freer opportunity for investigation. He had tried everything available to him, and he could start exploring new territory.

So now we come to “the three watches of the night”. It didn’t occur to me until I read it in Schumann’s book, that this means that each realization took place over a period of three hours, that being the length of a “watch.” That is a pretty interesting little fact.

Ajahn Amaro says that sometimes in Buddhism thinking gets a bad name, but the Buddha thought quite a lot. To be sure, his thinking was in the realm of directed contemplation, rather than the uncontrolled, inner dialog that most of us experience. But Ajahn Amaro is right, and we have thousands of pages of the Buddha’s thoughts and reflections in the Pali canon. On the night of his enlightenment, if the canon is correct, he spent about 9 hours looking into and thinking about the nature of what he was seeing.

The canon tells us that on that night the first thing that the Buddha did was to enter the fourth jhāna. (In the Budda's system of training there are 4 jhānas.) Mental focus becomes like a laser, and the mind becomes a sharp tool:

"When a monk enters and emerges from that very attainment, his mind is pliant and malleable. With his pliant, malleable mind, limitless concentration is well developed.” [AN 9.35]

With this highly concentrated mind, he turned his attention to the recollection of past lives. It is worth posing the question why he did this, and I am not sure. But meditators are like astronomers. All that sitting may look boring from the outside, but on the inside a lot of stuff is going on. It’s a big mental universe, and at different times, meditators turn their attention to different phenomena. Apparently, for whatever reason, on this night the Buddha turned his attention to his previous lives. He had the this incalculably sharp instrument, and was casting about for something interesting on which to focus:

"When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two... five, ten... fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion: 'There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.' Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes and details.” [MN 4]

It is worth noting here that many people – let’s call them "Westerners" – do not believe in rebirth. I can only say that in my view, it is impossible to read the Pali canon and not think that the Buddha understood rebirth to be a fact. And this is not some symbolic rebirth, meaning during this very life. The canon is quite clear about the principle of rebirth meaning physical death:

“Due to having performed and completed such kammas, on the dissolution of the body, after death…” [MN 135]

The key words here being on the dissolution of the body.

The canonical literature also tells us that in the higher levels of concentration – the formless attainments – it is possible to see into past lives. This does not happen to everyone who attains these levels of concentration, but it is possible. Thus, like all of the Buddha’s teachings, this experiment can be repeated by those who are able to master the training:

...the ability to remember past lives, to know where living beings are reborn after death, and to cleanse the heart of the fermentations (asava) of defilement: These three forms of intuition—termed ñana-cakkhu, the eye of the mind—can arise for people who train themselves in the area of the heart and mind. [Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, Keeeping the Breath in Mind & Lessons in Samadhi]

At this point the Buddha has spent several hours contemplating his previous lives. I consider this interesting, but not particularly profound. However, it is laying the groundwork for the second watch of the night:

"When the mind was thus concentrated... and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. I saw — by means of the divine eye, purified and surpassing the human — beings passing away and re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: 'These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech and mind, who reviled the Noble Ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech, and mind, who did not revile the Noble Ones, who held right views and undertook actions under the influence of right views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.' Thus — by means of the divine eye, purified and surpassing the human — I saw beings passing away and re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma.” [MN 19]

First the Buddha sees how all sentient beings have in common the phenomena of rebirth. So in the first watch of the night, he saw into his own rebirths, and in the second watch he saw, well, guess what? All beings go through this process. We’re all in this together.

Secondarily – but even more importantly – he sees that beings are born in accordance with their kamma, that it is the moral and ethical quality of their actions that determines their place of rebirth.

This is a very important finding. It’s not Brahma – God – who makes things happen, it’s not pre-determined, it isn’t dumb luck, and life isn’t pointless either, which is sort of where the hedonists end up. Our own happiness is inexplicably bound with the moral quality of our behavior.

The Buddha – still Siddhattha – now starts to delve more deeply into what he is seeing. He begins to watch this process – probably in his own mind. And he begins to see into the Law of Causality, Dependent Co-arising.

Dependent Co-arising is one of the most complex and subtle teachings of the Buddha. Ajahn Punnadhammo says that when he was at a monastery in Thailand, the two subjects that were most likely to cause a lively debate were Dependent Co-arising and whether it was allowable for a monk to eat cheese after noon.

Without attempting the impossible task of explaining Dependent Co-arising here, it is worth giving the “standard formula” in its most expanded form from the canon:

"And what is dependent co-arising? From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications. From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-and-form. From name-and-form as a requisite condition come the six sense media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then aging and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress and suffering.” [SN 12.2]

Thus we have a detailed view of causality as seen by the Buddha, the 12 links in the chain of dependent co-arising.

Notice at this point how systematically the Buddha is chasing down this problem. He is resisting the temptation to start speculating about what he is seeing. Rather, he is concentrating all of his considerable energy on watching how causality works, how it manifests from mind-moment to mind-moment. He is taking an intense interest in what is going on. He started by seeing how beings are reborn according to their kamma, and now he is penetrating the minute details of that process.

The Buddha’s intense curiosity at this juncture reminds me of a passage in Walden in which Thoreau describes a war between two colonies of ants from different ant species. It happens over a number of hours, and you can feel the fascination with which Thoreau watches what is unfolding. Another great mind that had this capacity for observation was Darwin. In Buddhism, the second of the seven factors of enlightenment is taking an interest, curiosity. This is what the Buddha is experiencing, a deep fascination in observing the process by which the mind works.

Another thing worth noting about Dependent Co-arising is that as the Buddha continues his observations, he sees into the multi-dimensional quality of causality. In the West, in particular, we are used to thinking of causality in terms of a single condition and a single result, like a row of dominos. This is not the Buddhist view at all, which is much more subtle and complex.

In the Buddhist view of causality, a myriad of causes and conditions gives rise to another myriad of phenomena, which in turn gives rise to another myriad of phenomena and so forth. However, it is not quid pro quo. The example that Venerable P.A. Payutto gives is an apple tree. If you take an apple seed and put it into the ground, the seed is not the cause of the apple tree. Nor are the soil, water, nutrients, air temperature and so forth. However, the presence of all of these causes and conditions creates a possibility – perhaps even a probability – that a tree will grow. It is a probabilistic universe, much like that described by quantum physics.

Another example is poverty. Poverty does not cause crime, otherwise monasteries would be hotbeds for felons. However, poverty in combination with other causes and conditions can increase the probability that there will be higher crime rates. This may be one reason that we are often unsuccessful at solving problems, especially social ones. We believe in the smoking gun, the single cause for something, rather than seeing a) that it is a combination of causes and conditions that creates an outcome and b) that even with the presence of these causes and conditions, the outcome is probabilistic and not deterministic.

Thus, to make the point clear, although the chain is given like a row of dominos in the standard formula, that is not at all how it functions. Any of the links can co-arise with a number of other links. It is also, as we will see, possible to cut off the chain of causality with skillful attention.

The Buddha is now on the verge of making two additional and rather startling discoveries. The first is the role of intention in the chain of dependent origination. Another word to use might be attitude. What is the state of heart and mind that we bring to bear on phenomena as they arise? Two people can experience the same input, and have two very different responses to that input.

The word kamma (karma in Sanskrit) literally means action. Thus, in a conventional sense, the type of rebirth we experience is due to the moral and ethical quality of our actions.

However, the Buddha equated kamma with intention:

"Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and intellect." [AN 6.63]

This is very unlike what we are taught in the West, where we are told that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” I think the Buddha might re-phrase this to say, “The road to Hell is paved with unskillful (or unwise) intentions.” But wise, skillful intentions, that emanate from a mind that understands the law of causality, particularly the role of ethical and moral behavior, and that has a foundation of kindness, compassion, and generosity, creates the fertile soil from which skillful action can arise.

This is a very subtle point. Suppose you are a person who believes wholeheartedly in the ethical basis of the law of causality as taught by the Buddha. That is an important step. But one might, under stress, put energy into a knotty internal debate about possible reactions to the stress. It’s like how a computer determines the next chess move, by evaluating hundreds and thousands of possible solutions, with all of their pros and cons.

What the Buddha is suggesting, I think, is that rather than doing that, put your energy into developing a loving, kind, generous, compassionate mind, one free from greed, hatred and delusion, and that having done that, as a by-product of that kind, skillful mind, wise action will arise. It is like making sure that your garden soil is fertile, and then trusting that the plants will grow.

I have had personal experience with this, in a very stressful work situation with an adversarial boss in a contentious situation, and it was almost an out of body experience. As words came out of my mouth, I was able to remain firm in my position, while also reducing the level of tension, and when the conversation was over, no one was distressed. I watched myself say things that were firm but skillful, and it was all by way of conjuring up a loving, compassionate state of mind, and letting everything else take its course. Personally I consider this to be one of the most remarkable and practical teachings of the Buddha. But I also have to say that the first time you do it, you have to gird your loins, as it were, and make a tremendous leap of faith. You are working without a net.

The second thing the Buddha deduced from watching the chain of dependent co-arising is in some ways the Holy Grail of Buddhism, to mix religious metaphors. He saw where it all goes wrong. There is nothing particularly harmful in the chain up to and including the link of feeling, feeling being the general quality we associate with sense experience. In the Buddha’s way of thinking feeling is not an emotion, the way we think of the word. Feeling is more like the feeling tone, whether we perceive the experience to be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is sort of like the reptile brain, that judges everything it sees to be friend, foe, or harmless.

It is the next step in the chain where it all goes wrong, and that is craving. Things that are pleasant, we want, things that are unpleasant we push away, and things that are neutral put us to sleep. Now we have a problem. We want things. We want sex, drugs, food, other peoples’ countries, and on and on. We suffer twice – at least – when we experience something we don’t like, like pain, where we suffer once from the pain, and at least once more because of our aversion to the pain.

The Buddha understood at this point, that experience that is met with equanimity, where we are open to the experience but are not pulled to what we want and averse to what we don’t want, creates a peaceful, calm, happy mind, one that needs little, does not suffer, and does not cause suffering for oneself or others. The great way is not difficult for those not attached to preferences. [Seng-ts'an, Hsin-hsin Ming.]

The other aspect of this that is quite thorny for most people, and quite subtle, is that most magical of the Buddha’s teachings, anattā, or not-self. This is - yet another – of the Buddha’s remarkable insights.

Imagine now that the Buddha is watching all this unfold. What he is witnessing is a phenomenological universe, one that is an endless stream of cause and effect. It is like watching a weather system that is changing moment by moment. Nothing is fixed or certain; it is just an endless dance. And in this dance, there is no divine intervention, nothing permanent, no soul, no “atta” to use the Brahman term, just a process. A living being is a process. Everything is a process. As Dr. Andrew Olendzki of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies puts it, “Nothing exists, everything occurs.” Nothing exists in any permanent, unchanging way.

The implications for this are quite startling and far-reaching. For example, many people think that Buddhism is atheistic. That isn’t entirely true. It is true that in the Buddhist view, God did not create the universe, and he or she is not omnipotent. But there is a God – Brahma – in the Buddhist cosmology, and Brahma is quite powerful. But Brahma, like everything else, is impermanent. It’s a job. Some being gets reborn as Brahma, and eventually the kamma for that rebirth is exhausted, the being that is Brahma is reborn somewhere else, and another being becomes Brahma.

The Buddha, at this point, has, I think, all of the pieces to the puzzle, and now the dots are connected. He has a very good understanding of the problem that he set out to solve, the problem of human suffering. He has seen how all things are impermanent and subject to change. He has seen that nothing has an inherent “self”, that all beings are ever-changing streams of phenomena. From here he is ready to launch into his final realization of the night, that of the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths represent the culmination of all that he has found. It is a mature, complete teaching. It is the one teaching on which all the schools of Buddhism agree:

  1. The first noble truth – the unenlightened life, one that is fueled by ignorance, inevitably contains a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
  2. The second noble truth - the cause for this unnecessary suffering is craving.
  3. The third noble truth is the cessation of suffering. This is the good news. With training, a being can be free from unnecessary suffering, and you don’t have to be a Buddha to do it.
  4. The fourth noble truth is the path of training to end this unnecessary suffering:
    1. Right view – understanding, especially the law of causality, and an understanding of impermanence and selflessness
    2. Right intention – approaching life with a kind, loving heart, the fertile ground from which wise actions arises
    3. Right speech – speaking in a way that is wise and skillful
    4. Right action – acting in a way that is wise and skillful
    5. Right livelihood – earning a living in a way that is non-harming
    6. Right effort – applying your energy in useful and skillful ways g. Right mindfulness – wise and skillful attention
    7. Right concentration –jhāna, the electron microscope of Buddhism

It is said that for 7 weeks after the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment he was in deep meditation, contemplating his discoveries . This makes sense to me. He had uncovered something quite new. To be sure, a lot of this doctrine came from existing beliefs in other traditions. In some cases the Buddha took these understandings and moved them a few degrees one way or another, understanding them in slightly different ways that the people before him. But that little nudge was revolutionary and dramatic. I am sure that it took him some time to fully assimilate everything that he had seen.

It is a remarkable story in creative problem solving. The Buddha has been called a religious genius. That he most certainly was. But I think the path of his thinking can be understood, and that is what this dissertation is about. It is also fortunate for us that we do not have to be religious geniuses to follow his path. The Buddha does not ask us to accept on blind faith anything. He did a controlled experiment, and he tells us that if we follow the same steps that he did, that we will see the same truths. It is an unprecedented gift to the world.