The teachings of Buddha have been interpreted in many different ways in different cultures over the 2500 years since his life on this planet but the various traditions agree on the essence of Buddha's teachings. The basic doctrine of Buddhism is what has been translated as the Four Noble Truths which are that existence is suffering; suffering has a cause, namely craving and attachment; suffering can be ceased; and there is a way out of suffering which is called the Eightfold Path.
One can find descriptions of the specifics of the practice of this path in libraries or online. What I would like to address here is how the Four Noble Truths are understood as I believe that misunderstanding them has put a halt to many a prospective practitioner's desire to embark on this path. Buddhism is a practice more than a faith-based religion but one will not be interested in practicing something one does not believe in.
The first truth sounds rather pessimistic: existence is suffering! That's a tough pill to swallow! It doesn't say existence includes suffering. It says that existence IS suffering! Period! So isn't it a contradiction to follow that period with stating that there is a way out of suffering? Does that mean that one would have to cease to exist to be free of suffering? No. The second truth offers an important clue: suffering has a cause.
Many people have a negative idea of the concept of karma. They see it as punishment for having done bad things and that we are powerless beneath that hanging sword of Damocles. Karma simply means that every cause has an effect: as ye sow, so shall you reap. That is good news, because this means that we have the power to create or at least co-create our reality. We cannot control the infinite variables that contribute to our experience but we can do our part to make it better. Doing that effectively requires us to understand what I believe Buddha meant when he said that craving and attachment are the cause of suffering.
There is a prevailing belief among spiritual seekers and Buddhists in particular that we need to eliminate desire in order to be free of suffering. Well, good luck! Without desire you will not be able to sustain your physical existence and you would not even desire to be alive! One of my teachers wisely said that the problem is not that people have too much desire. The problem is that they do not have enough desire! You need a much bigger desire than the desire for gratification of your cravings or accumulating things or experiences to extricate yourself from the mire of the cycle of suffering. You need the desire to liberate yourself and others from suffering: Desire with a big D!
Since one of my friends used to call me Big D, I consider myself qualified to elaborate on this theme. A recurring experience I have when I write my morning pages provides a good example of big Desire. The idea of the practice of writing morning pages is that you are not writing for anyone to read what you write. Aside from its intended purpose of stimulating creative expression, there is no practical application for what you are writing and it does not even have to be coherent or lead anywhere in particular. You are simply writing whatever comes to mind without pausing to reflect. It's a continuous unedited free flow.
As I begin to write whatever comes to mind I might first notice that I am writing gibberish and that I am aware of a critical voice within me feeling a little anxious about the worth of what I am expressing. Then, as things progress I am usually inducted into a series of insights that surface from the depths of my subliminal preconscious mind simply as a result of putting aside the editing voices of the habitual dominant persona in my psyche. So it is not surprising that one recurring theme is the crucial importance of anchoring my attention in the present moment.
For example, I am inspired by the recognition that slowing down my breath is the spontaneous reaction of my body-mind when I find that my mind is rushing me in its projections and I want to reign it in to release that tension and go with the flow in my writing. Slowing down my breath is the key to gracefully dancing in the continuity of the micro-movements of time and space. So now I want to share this insight, as I am doing now, and I realize that I have been distracted from staying present by my projection of wanting to share my insights! My trickster mind never rests! How can I avoid being distracted by this clever psyche-hacker?
It occurs to me that even appetite could be a psychosomatic distraction from feeling - the feeling of hunger. If that is so, it is not much different from an addiction. Years ago I had a dream in which a voice told me that an effective way to be free of an addiction is taking a little time to feel what is going on in your body-mind before reaching for whatever you crave rather than imposing upon yourself the imperative of abstaining altogether.
Feeling is an integral part of suffering. That is the paradox of it all! In order to be free of suffering we need to exert the courage to hang in with our feelings, to feel the potential to suffer rather than try to extinguish it. Avoiding is an escape into the unconscious and what is unconscious has more control over us than what we consciously apprehend. So yes, existence is suffering and one can be free within the push and pull of our tendencies if we consent to dance the passionate tango of duality with our full attention.
Mastering the dance of life requires big Desire and Dedication. We may be discouraged when we stumble but, as one of my teachers taught, perfection is not something we attain but the practice itself.