Wise Understanding is the first aspect of the Wisdom limb of the Noble Eightfold Path. Albert Einstein wisely said "A human being is a part of the whole, called by us 'universe,' yet we experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is really a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires, and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of understanding and compassion, to embrace all living creatures in the whole of nature and its beauty."
That there is a path to the end of suffering, to freedom, is the Fourth Noble Truth. We walk the Path as our life practice—to cultivate and develop WISDOM, live in INTEGRITY with Wise Speech, Wise Action (harmlessness) and Wise Livelihood and in MEDITATION (cultivating continuous wise presence in all activity, feeling directly the body and breath, knowing intimately our emotions and thought process). The Noble Eightfold Path is a Middle Path, a path of balance.
The purpose of the teachings and practice is freedom, the “sure heart’s release.” It is the cooling and extinguishing of the fires of greed, hatred and delusion that rage in the heart. Knowing the genuine possibility of freedom for every being, the Buddha taught that the heart can be free and loving in every circumstance. And he assured us that if it were not possible, he would not ask us to realize and embody it. This is the Third Noble Truth—suffering can cease and that sure heart’s release must be, and has been, realized: freedom, right here, in the midst of the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows known in every human life.
The Second Noble Truth is that the clinging mind—grasping, hatred and ignorance—protecting what we think is “ours” from loss—are the cause of suffering, individual and worldwide, internally and externally.
I’ve been reflecting lately on the profundity of the Four Noble Truths. These Truths underpinned all 45 years of the Buddha’s teachings. We sometimes think we already know this as a beginners’ teaching. And we want the juicy stuff, the more complex and meaty philosophical or intellectual challenges. My experience with these Four seemingly simple Truths is that as our practice settles and we reflect more deeply, they reveal the profound reality of being human in unexpected ways. This is not surprising, as they have endured as a guide leading to the liberation of the heart/mind for 2600 years.
Mudita, a Pali and Sanskrit word, has no precise counterpart in English. The third Brahma Vihara, it is variously translated as sympathetic, altruistic or unselfish joy, finding joy in the good fortune of others, or pure joy unadulterated by self interest. HH the Dalai Lama observed that if we cultivate mudita, "our chances for happiness multiply by 7 billion!" Yet mudita is perhaps the least discussed and practiced Brahma Vihara. Is it that difficult?
Compassion (Pali: karuna) is the second of the four Brahmavihara or Boundless States. Suffering is universal and not foreign to human experience. How we relate and respond is the very essence of our Buddhist mind/heart training. Often we recoil and armor the heart, believing that something has gone terribly wrong, or someone is to blame for this very human experience. Yet, the heart can be trained to respond with compassion, based on mutual resonance and natural connectedness in the face of loss and pain. Compassion is sensitivity, not grounded in pity, repulsion or fear, arising from the heart’s fearless inclusive capacity to recognize universal kinship and belonging, especially in suffering.
The gift of mindfulness practice is that in any moment of anxiety or fear, we are called to open our hearts, to have the courage to be with even our deepest, darkest fears. An old Hasidic story says teachings are placed on, not in, our hearts, so that when the heart breaks, the teachings fall in. We hear, reflect on and put into practice the teachings, so that in the turmoil of anxiety and fear, loving awareness, is our response—trusting that loving, compassionate, peaceful presence is what is most healing in the experience of the broken, anxious or fearful heart.
Metta (loving-kindness) is the ninth parami, or emanation of an awake being. What we call "love" is usually based on desire and attachment. This "love" is unreliable because it is usually based on grasping, conditioned on what we get from the “beloved.” At first, the attraction and even the grasping may feel exciting, obscuring the underlying suffering of grasping.
The eighth parami (quality of Buddhamind) is Resolve or Determination, the capacity to set a direction in life and pursue it with courageous energy and patience despite obstacles to its attainment. It is the unshakeable spirit in us that calls us to stick to our course with the kind of dedication the Buddha had on the night of his enlightenment, when he vowed not to arise from his seat until he came to see the cause of suffering in his own heart and in the world, and come to freedom from it.