Every individual strives for happiness. Every community, every society and country tries to make peoples' lives happier. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear, in spite of all the material progress we make, that the real goal of happiness is not being achieved. Material progress has brought many benefits but that alone is not enough.
As human beings we have many different needs but the most important of these is to make spiritual progress. All our other needs are to do with the body - food, clothing, and so on - but the mind is more important than the physical body. How then can we make spiritual progress?
Every major religion in the world has its own beauty and its own way to help mankind. The Buddha's teaching is that every living being possesses Buddha Nature, that right from the beginning the true nature of our mind is pure.
At the moment we do not see the true nature of the mind. Instead we are completely covered with defilements and delusions. But these things which obscure Buddha Nature are not in the true nature of the mind. They are like the dirt on a piece of cloth: if we use the right method we can remove the dirt and see the actual colour of the cloth. Similarly the obscurations are not in the nature of the mind, which is pure from the very beginning. This is why we say that every living being has Buddha Nature.
This does not mean that we are already a Buddha, but that we have the seed of the Buddha. Every seed has the potential to grow into a crop when it meets with the right conditions. If we meet with the right conditions we all have the potential to become a fully enlightened Buddha.
At present, because we do not see the true nature of the mind we are caught up in samsara, the circle of existence, and as long as we are caught in the circle we are not free from suffering. We will go on and on in this circle endlessly - unless we become enlightened. So the way to become free from suffering is to practise Dharma, the way of the Buddha.
The way of the Buddha has two aspects: the method and wisdom aspects. The method consists of taking refuge in the three jewels of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Taking refuge means being completely under the protection of the Buddha as our guide, the Dharma as the path, and the Sangha as our companions.
The wisdom aspect is to be found in the teachings given by the Buddha, and in particular in the fundamental natural laws known as "the four great seals" - so called because in ancient times when an emperor set his seal to something it became the law. The four seals are the foundation of all the Buddha's teachings.
All compounded things are impermanent.
A compounded thing is anything which is created by causes and conditions. When the cause and conditions come together it appears, but as soon as any of these are absent it ceases to appear. It is impermanent. This is true of everything in the world. Even the biggest, seemingly most stable things such as mountains and oceans eventually disappear. Similarly with living beings: our life is only temporary.
As human beings we do not have a definite life span. Also there are very few conditions which prolong life but many which shorten it. Our life is filled with uncertainty.
Thinking about impermanence motivates us to to begin on the spiritual path. Out of all the perceptions we could have, impermanence is the best, because at the beginning it leads us from worldly life into the spiritual life and later it speeds our progress along the spiritual path.
Remembering impermanence also helps us to realise emptiness, by showing us that things do not exist independently. Life is like a magical show: when the ingredients that combine to produce the illusion of something, such as an animal or a person, lose their power, the illusion vanishes.
All contaminated thins are suffering.
Why do we suffer? Not by accident, not because of some outside force, but because of our own defilements. If the root of a tree is poisoned, then anything which grows on the tree is poisoned. Likewise any actions that arise from defilements create suffering.
As well as what we normally consider to be suffering - our physical and mental pain - there is the fact that what appears to be happiness is in reality unhappiness. This is like someone escaping from the heat of the sun into a cool house where he feels happy - in which case the longer he stays in the house the happier he should become - but eventually the room feels cold to him and he wants to go back into the sun.
Our very existence itself is suffering. No matter where we go or what we have or who we are with, we can never be fully satisfied. In this way even feelings which normally we consider to be indifferent are also suffering.
We suffer because of our defilements, and these come from our lack of wisdom, our ignorance of the true nature of reality. Ignorance is the most basic defilement. It is because of our ignorance that we are caught up in duality and it is from ignorance that attachment and aggression arise. From these three main defilements of ignorance, attachment, and aggression come the other defilements such as pride, meanness, jealousy and so forth.
Out of these negative states of mind come actions - physical, verbal, and mental - and all actions that spring from a poisoned source, the defilements, create suffering - in this life and the next. Suffering is the crop which grows from the seed of our negative actions. The exact nature of the suffering depends on the amount of negative actions committed and also on the nature of the actions.
These may result in one falling into the hell realm or the hungry ghost or the animal realm. Also the pain which we cause to others comes back to us: if we have killed or inflicted pain on others for example we may have a short or a n unhealthy life.. actions produce a tendency to engage in similar actions again, which in turn creates more and more causes of suffering.
All the many kinds of suffering are produced by negative actions. On the other hand positive uncontaminated actions which are free from defilements produce positive results.
The negative and positive aspects of our present life are the product of the deeds we have committed in the past. What we are going to experience in the future - happiness or suffering - is in our own hands. No one else can save us.
All phenomena are without self.
We all have a tendency to think of "I" but this is not logical. If there is a personal self it must be a name, a body, or a mind. Yet any name can be given to anybody at any time; we cannot find a self in any part of the body; and as for the mind: the past mind is gone, the future mind is yet to come, and the present mind is changing from moment to moment.
When we say "my", who is the owner? Who is it that owns "my" possessions, body, mind? It is a wrong notion, like mistaking a rope for a snake, but we cling to the notion of self and from this comes the idea of "other". And once we are caught up in this duality we have attachment and aversion, from which all the defilements are created.
External objects are also devoid of self. A table, for example, can be reduced to its component parts, the parts to wood, the wood to atoms and so on. We cannot find a real "table". In reality everything is free of self.
Nirvana is peace.
Nirvana is the true peace beyond sorrow. To reach nirvana we need to subdue the defilements and then eliminate them. We subdue them by realising that self-clinging is is the root of all defilements, from which come the negative actions that cause suffering. To eliminate the defilements, to completely dig out the roots of the poisoned tree, we need the wisdom which realises non-self. When we have that wisdom, self-clinging disappears and, like a fire deprived of fuel, suffering is extinguished. This is nirvana, the real peace, where one is never caught in samsara again.
The ultimate enlightenment is the great nirvana, when one is free from samsara but out of compassion does not remain in nirvana. One develops qualities which manifest in activity that ceaselessly benefits sentient beings.
The wind of karma and defilements has dictated our present situation. But because we have Buddha Nature the temporary obscurations can be eliminated. We have the right conditions to study and practice Dharma, so if we do not use such an opportunity, if we make no effort and fail to move even one step forward, there could be no greater loss.
To seek enlightenment is the most beneficial thing we can do for ourselves and for others.