Siddhartha Gautama was born into a royal family in Lumbini, now located in Nepal, in 563 BC. Although raised in luxury and married to the sensuous Yashodara (a woman reputed to be more beautiful than the Goddess of Beauty herself), with whom he had a son, at 29, finding that wealth and luxury did not guarantee happiness, Siddhartha decided to abandon the worldly life and become a recluse, living a nomadic life of great austerity and reflection. After six years of study and meditation he finally found 'The Middle Path' and was enlightened. The ‘Middle Path’ is so called because it holds the centre road between hedonism and asceticism. After enlightenment, the Buddha spent the next 45 years of his life (effectively until his death at the age of eighty) teaching the principles of Buddhism.
It should be noted that Buddha was not, nor did he ever claim to be, a God. He was simply a man who taught a path to enlightenment from his own experience.
The Middle Way consists of Four Noble truths and the Eightfold Path.
The First Noble Truth:
The first truth is that all life is ‘dukkha’, a term that derives from the Sanskrit for ‘suffering’. Life, this first truth reminds us, includes pain, getting old, disease, and ultimately death. We also endure psychological suffering like loneliness frustration, fear, embarrassment, disappointment and anger. This is an irrefutable fact that cannot be denied. It is realistic rather than pessimistic because pessimism is expecting things to be bad. Buddhism explains how suffering can be avoided and how we can be truly happy.
The Second Noble Truth:
The second truth is that ‘dukkha’ or suffering is caused by desire or craving. Craving, that is, for satisfaction and permanence in things that are transitory, impermanent, and elusive. Since all things are transitory, any attempt to find permanence in worldly things results in suffering.
The Third Noble Truth:
The third truth is that suffering can be overcome and true happiness and contentment attained. By eliminating senseless craving, dwelling neither in the past nor in the imagined future, we can learn to take each day as it is given to us, and be happy and free. Moreover, in such a state of mind, we can have more time and energy to help others. This is Nirvana. It should be emphasized that nirvana is not some out of body or otherworldly experience but a level of awareness, of consciousness that is attained by the physical and mental practices set out in the four noble truths and the eightfold path.
The Fourth Noble Truth:
The fourth truth is that the Noble Eightfold Path is the path which leads to the end of suffering.
The Noble Eightfold Path:
The Eightfold Path describes the way to the end of suffering, as it was laid out by Siddhartha Gautama. It is a practical guideline to ethical and mental development with the goal of freeing the individual from attachments and delusions; and it finally leads to understanding the truth about all things. Together with the Four Noble Truths it constitutes the essence of Buddhism. A strong emphasis is put on the practical aspect, because it is only through practice that one can attain a higher level of existence and finally reach Nirvana. The eight aspects of the path are not to be understood as a sequence of single steps, instead they are highly interdependent principles that have to be seen in relationship with each other.
1. Perfected or Right View
Perfected or Right view is the beginning and the end of the path, it simply means to see and to understand things as they really are and to realize the Four Noble Truths.
2. Perfected or Right Intention
While right view refers to the cognitive aspect of wisdom, right intention refers to the volitional aspect, that is, the kind of mental energy that controls our actions. Right intention can be described best as commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement. Buddha distinguishes three types of right intentions: (1) the intention of renunciation, which means resistance to the pull of desire, (2) the intention of good will, meaning resistance to feelings of anger and aversion, and (3) the intention of harmlessness, meaning not to think or act cruelly, violently, or aggressively, and to develop compassion.
3. Perfected or Right Speech
Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Right Speech is speech free from malice, gossip, or negativity. In other words, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.
4. Perfected or Right Action
Right action means: (1) to abstain from harming sentient beings, especially to abstain from taking life (including suicide) and doing harm intentionally or delinquently. ( 2) to abstain from taking what is not given, which includes stealing, robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty, and, (3) to abstain from sexual misconduct. Positively formulated, right action means to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest, to respect the belongings of others, and to keep sexual relationships harmless to others.
5. Perfected or Right Livelihood
Right livelihood means that one should earn one's living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. In short, avoidance of work that is harmful to others.
6. Perfected or Right Effort
Right effort can be seen as a prerequisite for the other principles of the path. Without effort, which is in itself an act of will, nothing can be achieved, whereas misguided effort distracts the mind from its task, and confusion will be the consequence. Mental energy is the force behind right effort; it can occur in either wholesome or unwholesome states. The same type of energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence can on the other side fuel self-discipline, honesty, benevolence, and kindness.
7. Perfected or Right Mindfulness
Right mindfulness is the controlled and perfected faculty of cognition. It is the mental ability to see things as they are, with clear consciousness. Right mindfulness is anchored in clear perception and it penetrates impressions without getting carried away. Right mindfulness enables us to be aware of the process of conceptualization in a way that we actively observe and control the way our thoughts go. Buddha accounted for this as the ‘four foundations of mindfulness’: (1), contemplation of the body, (2) contemplation of feeling (repulsive, attractive, or neutral), (3) contemplation of the state of mind, and, (4) contemplation of the phenomena.
8. Perfected or Right Concentration.
The eighth principle of the path, right concentration, refers to the development of a mental force that occurs in natural consciousness, although at a relatively low level of intensity, namely concentration. Concentration in this context is described as one-pointedness of mind, meaning a state where all mental faculties are unified and directed onto one particular object. Right concentration for the purpose of the eightfold path means ‘wholesome concentration’, that is, concentration on wholesome thoughts and actions. The Buddhist method of choice to develop right concentration is through the practice of meditation. The meditating mind focuses on a selected object. It first directs itself onto it, then sustains concentration, and finally intensifies concentration step by step. Through this practice it becomes natural to apply elevated levels concentration also in everyday situations.
In summary, the Eightfold Path is being moral (through what we say, do and our livelihood), focusing the mind on being fully aware of our thoughts and actions, and developing wisdom by understanding the Four Noble Truths and by developing compassion for others.