"Making Sense of Buddhism" - an explanation of fundamental problems that confuse students on first exploring Buddhist religion and philosophy.

Buddhism approaches life and living in a quite different way from the Judaic, Christian or Muslim traditions. This introduction seeks to clarify the Buddhist approach to the way the world is and works, and how human beings can best deal with life and its challenges. It analyses the Buddhist approach logically step by step, arriving at the reasons why the Buddha settled on the Four Noble Truths as a sane and rational analysis of the human condition. The Noble Eightfold Path, the doctrine of anatta and the spread of Buddhism which results from this analysis are the subject of a second discussion in this Library.

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...g to a myriad of creatures, from what we eat to the ants our cars may have run over or were crushed under your feet as you walked.

That might be true, but in reality, that was not the essence of what the Buddha was referring to when he put forward the notion of dukkha; or at least, that was only a part of it. In any case, you may raise some objections. If the Buddha was around six centuries before Christ, there were not six billion people in the world at that time. If we have to watch out for every living creature, we could not eat or drink, or even not move a muscle.

The Buddha understood this very well. Although he would still maintain that the outstanding characteristic of existence is still suffering, that was not the main thrust of his argument. He appears to have seen that suffering in that sense is a normal part of the way of the universe. The suffering which accompanies illness and death are simply part of the process of life - the flow and change that is the characteristic of the universe. He fully accepted the transience of all things. In fact, he understood that one of the things that caused the most suffering to human beings was failure to recognise this very act.

The problem is the use of the term "dukkha". He seems to have accepted that even the natural world, which can hardly be described as sinful or careless or immoral, was one in which killing was inevitable, and dying was an unavoidable consequence of life. "Dukkha" can be translated in various ways, and we do not have to accept that suffering is the only term we can apply to it. In fact, what it really means is something more like "off-centred-ness" - like a wheel that is not centred on its axle and therefore no matter what happens, as soon as the wheel moves, it is awkward and inefficient - and by its very action generates off-centeredness. If you apply that to human beings, it has real meaning then, because we often say that we have to focus ourselves, we have to centre ourselves - we have to find our true centre - our selves - whatever terminology you want to describe the process that allows you to escape from the condition of frustration where you never feel at peace.

What he was really saying here was that most people feel frustrated and dissatisfied all the time, to a greater or lesser degree. He is not saying that everyone is suicidal about this, but that we tend to experience this off-centeredness just about every day of our lives. He had certainly experienced this himself - it was, according to tradition, the very thing that made him set out on his journey of understanding of the true nature of the world and himself.

The Buddha accepted that dukkha, or off-centeredness, is part of the human condition, and his next step then had to be to identify what it was that caused the sort of suffering that we seem to bring on ourselves. This was the second part of his analysis, and in it he said that suffering of this sort is caused by desire. He was talking about the things that we think we need. Leave aside the essentials such as enough food to eat, comfortable enough houses and clothes and basic health. In most western societies, these basics are easy enough to attain for most people - yet the fundamental fact ...