Gotama the Buddha — not a religious mystic

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The Buddha’s way:

  1. To existentially know stress
  2. To let go of craving (the root of stress).
  3. To experience cessation (of stress
  4. To cultivate an eightfold path to ongoing cessation

[adapted from Stephen Batchelor on the Four Noble Truths]


The following account is extracted from an early draft of The Novice.

Twenty-six hundred years ago Siddhattha, heir to the Gotama clan which ruled Śākya in North India, was traumatized by the reality of sickness, aging and death. At the age of twenty-nine, he abandoned his privileged life and the pious superstitions of the Brahmin religious establishment to confront this anxiety, initially taking the route of escape into meditative absorptions. He practiced for six years under various teachers, mastering all he was taught, but realised in time that they offered only temporary escape. Rejecting these methods, he sought a way to deal once and for all with stress, while continuing to live among others.

Only after exploring his own path did Siddhattha claim to have found a middle way between material and spiritual truths; at the age of thirty-five, he unabashedly declared himself awakened and began teaching the four truths (see left) and the eightfold path — practical steps to awakening. What is today known as Buddhism preserves his teachings (dhamma) even though most traditions are devotional, religious and/or mystical, in ways that Siddhattha clearly disdained.

The psychological crux of the dhamma lies in the explanation of the five skandhas — automated patterns of conditioned (as opposed to mindful) behaviour. When combined with the practices Siddhattha advocated, this explanation is meant to help one stop seeking fulfilment in emotional reactivity and align one's expectations and stimulus response with the way things are (samyaksam). The result is samyaksambodhi, commonly and unfortunately translated as Enlightenment — neither the allusion to light nor the typographical emphasis of capitalization exists in the classical Pali or Sanskrit terms. The more accurate and illustrative word for bodhi (and its embodiment buddha), embraced more by scholars than by the Buddhist faithful, is awakening.

For a wide variety of reasons, Western cultures today find themselves increasingly aligned with Gotama’s preoccupations, and interest in Buddhism is growing rapidly. At one end of the spectrum, psychologists and physiologists know that instinctive attempts to distract ourselves from anxiety are counterproductive. At the other end, a general aversion to traditional religion combined with the success of popular psychology and self-help are creating a broader awareness of the consequences of denial and escapism: by seeking consolation and driving anxiety underground, superficial spirituality undermines mental and physical well-being.

With its non-intellectual, empirical approach, the Buddhist method coaches one to align expectations with the facts of life, so as to effect a shift of attitude towards equanimity or imperturbability (upekkha). With practice, wishful thinking gradually falls away and one becomes free to live life to the full.

To encapsulate the full scope of Siddhattha’s way, Stephen Schettini has coined the term mindful reflection™mindful awareness trains non-conceptual states of mind to establish present-moment, non-judgemental, attentive mental space, while reflective engagement uses conceptual states of mind (ideas) such as impermanence and opportunity to build motivation and trigger mindful episodes during daily life. These two states of mind (non-conceptual and conceptual) reach one’s full existence to confront illusion and stress.

Siddhattha spent forty-five years teaching, constantly encouraging his followers to explore their own inner space with non-judgmental attention. What he taught was neither philosophy nor religion, but exploration of their existential state. He refused to appoint a successor and suggested that his teaching could stand on its own feet (see right). Nevertheless many schools of Buddhism have evolved, all claiming to be Siddhattha’s legitimate heir.


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