The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Teachings of the Buddha: The Human Condition

by Bhikkhu Bodhi
September 24, 2013
Tue, 09/24/2013 - 10:20 -- bbodhi

In In the Buddha’s Words, Bhikkhu Bodhi organized the selected suttas into ten categories. For this project, we will begin each week with the introduction to that section, and then post selected suttas throughout the week. Today, we begin with “The Human Condition.”—Editor's Note

Like other religious teachings, the Buddha’s teaching originates as a response to the strains at the heart of the human condition. What distinguishes his teaching from other religious approaches to the human condition is the directness, thoroughness, and uncompromising realism with which he looks at these strains. The Buddha does not offer us palliatives that leave the underlying maladies untouched beneath the surface; rather, he traces our existential illness down to its most fundamental causes, so persistent and destructive, and shows us how these can be totally uprooted. However, while the Dhamma will eventually lead to the wisdom that eradicates the causes of suffering, it does not begin there but with observations about the hard facts of everyday experience. Here too its directness, thoroughness, and tough realism are evident. The teaching begins by calling upon us to develop a faculty called yoniso manasikāra, careful attention. The Buddha asks us to stop drifting thoughtlessly through our lives and instead to pay careful attention to simple truths that are everywhere available to us, clamoring for the sustained consideration they deserve.

One of the most obvious and inescapable of these truths is also among the most difficult for us to fully acknowledge, namely, that we are bound to grow old, fall ill, and die. It is commonly assumed that the Buddha beckons us to recognize the reality of old age and death in order to motivate us to enter the path of renunciation leading to Nibbāna, complete liberation from the round of birth and death. However, while this may be his ultimate intention, it is not the first response he seeks to evoke in us when we turn to him for guidance. The initial response the Buddha intends to arouse in us is an ethical one. By calling our attention to our bondage to old age and death, he seeks to inspire in us a firm resolution to turn away from unwholesome ways of living and to embrace instead wholesome alternatives.

To read the rest of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to “The Human Condition”, click here.

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