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A Single Thread

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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The Handful of Leaves.

Buddhism essentially does not have a set of beliefs that one memorizes and believes in intellectually. The essence of Buddhism is more about the nature of reality and the characteristics of reality. These characteristics are like the leaves on the trees.

This classic story of Buddha shows the enormity of what Buddhism is about.

The Buddha was staying in a forest with his disciples. He picked up a handful of leaves and asked,

“What do you think, are there more leaves in my hand or more in the forest?”

The disciples answered, “More in the forest.”

The Buddha agreed and explained to his followers that what he knew directly was far more than what he taught.

He goes on to explain that the handful of leaves is what is needed to awaken.

You must be dogged and persistent in your practice no matter what you face in life.

Leaves of Reality.
Buddha began by teaching what all human beings know. There is stress or suffering in this world. And this stress and suffering is experienced by all beings.

Birth is stress, sickness is stress, old age is stress and dying is stress. The Buddha’s teaching amplifies what human beings already experience. The amplification is the path of practice. His first teaching was the Four Noble Truths. These truths show the cause of suffering and the end of suffering.

Characteristics of Existence.
Suffering is the first characteristic. The two remaining are similar to the first, in that most human beings know the reality of change. The morning begins followed by the afternoon and night. All are able to see this simple reality of anicca or impermanence.

The Buddha offers teachings to broaden and deepen what is already known. The average man knows that life changes, but how to respond to this reality is what Buddhism helps one to do.

The Two Extreme Responses to Reality.
There are two extreme responses to reality that cause more difficulty and also reflect the reality of the third characteristic, anatta or non-self. The two extremes are in modern language, narcissism and nihilism.

Narcissism refers to the extreme of self-centeredness and eternal existence. This is not the teachings of Buddha. The other extreme is nihilism or the annihilation of any phenomena of ego. The Middle Way or neither narcissism nor nihilism is the reality of non-self.

This last characteristic may be the most difficult to experience. Yet, even though difficult, it is possible to see for your self the reality. Perhaps, for example, you set out to get an education to become a professional.

Let’s say you actually complete the education and fulfill the conventional requirements to become the professional. If one contemplates this “professional” classification one is able to see that it is a convention and not a real, substantial eternal thing.

It is, like all phenomena, under the law of change and suffering. It may provide momentary experiences but there is no solid thing known as a professional. It is at best a collection of characteristics we agree to call a “professional.” The phenomena known as “human being” also abide by this law of reality.

The Middle Way.
The Middle Way is a response to reality. It is when one does not cling to narcissism or nihilism. It is recognition of the flow or law of change of the whole existence of reality. It also is the realization of cause and effect and co-dependent arising.

Cause and Effect.
All phenomena respond to cause and effect. It is inescapable. If you put your finger in a flame, for example, your finger gets burned. It is a simple example of cause and effect. Cause and effect, although inescapable, is complex and therefore nearly impossible to make sense of each aspect of what cause brought what effect.

Buddhism clearly teaches that a wholesome response brings a wholesome effect and an unwholesome response brings an unwholesome effect. Despite this clarity of the path and the clear teachings in the precepts or moral guidelines there are no black and white rules in Buddhism.

Co-Dependent Arising refers to the reality when certain conditions exist certain things arise and when certain conditions do not exist certain things cease. The rising and ceasing of things relates to the existence of suffering. When, for example, tanha or desire exists suffering arises, when tanha or desire ceases suffering ceases. All phenomena fall under this law of co-dependent arising.

Karma or action is part of the cycle of cause and effect. It is sometimes misunderstood as resignation or as if one is doomed to certain results. Karma like cause and effect is complex. It is difficult to make sense of what actions lead directly to what result.

Buddhism teaches that actions in the present moment are the most important. The focus is on what you are up to right now and not on what you have done or might do. Buddhism emphasizes knowing the mind and training the mind in wholesome ways.

The law of change is in some ways a leavening effect on karma. Although actions effect and cause certain phenomena, change is ever possible. Buddhism teaches skillful means of living in order to effect the causes of suffering.

Skillful Means are all of the teachings of Buddhism which help to alleviate suffering. The Eightfold Path, the Paramitas and the Precepts are three major sets of skillful means.

The Three-Legged Stool of Buddhism.
Precepts are one leg of the three-legged stool of Buddhism. The other two legs are meditation or concentration and wisdom or insight. All three are necessary. If one or the other is forgotten, the Buddhist practitioner is wobbly and unstable as a stool would be. There are different sets of precepts. The lay practitioner vows to follow five or ten or sixteen precepts depending upon the tradition. Monks and Nuns follow many more.

Meditations are another leg of the three-legged school of Buddhism. There are many forms of meditation, but in general, each form is practiced in order to cultivate a concentrated mind.

Wisdom or Insight arises from the vows of the precepts as well as the practice of meditation. It is also considered one wing of Buddhism, the other wing being compassion.