The Theravada School of Buddhism, literally "the School of the Elders," is the oldest continual lineage of Buddhism and faithfully preserves the original teachings of the Master. The teachings are preserved both in the Pali Canon, the voluminous record of the Buddha's words over forty-five years of teaching, and in the living transmission of teacher to student, represented by the Order of Bhikkhus (one of the oldest institutions on this planet.) These three; Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha are the Three Jewels. Their worth is literally beyond price.
The teachings of the Buddha are eminently practical. They deal with two things only; suffering and the end of suffering. The teachings can best be summarized by the Four Noble Truths. The Noble Truth of Suffering which declares that existence is fraught with many kinds of suffering; birth; aging; sickness and death are the human heritage. This truth is to be understood. The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering declares that suffering is rooted in desire; the desire to enjoy sense pleasures, the desire to be and the desire not-to-be. This truth is to be abandoned. The Noble Truth of the End of Suffering declares that there is an escape from this misery; the ineffable bliss beyond bliss of Nibbana (or Nirvana.) This is a state that cannot be described or intellectually comprehended and which transcends all dualities. This truth can and must be realized for oneself. The Fourth Truth is the practical Truth of the Eightfold Path leading to the End of Suffering; Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. This truth is to be practiced.
Building on this elegant framework the Buddha's teaching, the Holy Dhamma, provides a guide through the perplexities of life and points the way to true happiness. The eight factors of the path represent a complete framework for liberation and can be understood as encompassing the three areas of morality, mental training and wisdom.
To enjoy happiness in this life and beyond it is first of all necessary to have a firm moral base. In Theravada Buddhism this means first of all keeping the Five Precepts as a guide to right living. Without the keeping of morality no higher mental culture is possible.
The First Precept enjoins us to kill no living being. One who engages in the slaughter of living beings, human or animal, is one with a mind polluted by evil states of hatred. Suffering inflicted on others will be returned as karma resultant as surely as night follows day. The wise dwell with a mind suffused by loving kindness at all times and for all beings. It is a sad commentary on the moral decay of this age that many acts of cruelty and killing occur and are even tolerated. War, abortion, vivisection, euthanasia, capital punishment, hunting are all violent acts with fearsome karmic consequence.
The Second Precept is to refrain from taking that which is not freely given. This is the standard for our economic relations; to only take that which is our rightful portion. Any theft by force or fraud is an act of greed that will hurt us in the future. Our consumer culture has no place for the Buddhist virtue of contentment with little. Driven by greed to have and to hold people steal and cheat with little thought of the result. Honesty and integrity in all our dealings as worker, employer, consumer or citizen are the only basis for true happiness.
The Third Precept is to refrain from sexual misconduct. This means in detail not to indulge in sexual relations with a married person or an underage person. The married person should be like a monk or nun with all other men and women except their partner. Adultery creates pain and distress and is the wrecker of families. In general our culture is far too promiscuous and indulgent in matters of sex and the result of this moral chaos is broken homes, venereal disease, the horror of abortion and other evils.
The Fourth Precept is to speak always the truth. When you lie you are creating a state of delusion in someone else's consciousness which is a terrible thing to do. We should value the truth as precious and refrain from laying at all times. There is karma attached to every word we utter; the speech praised by the Buddha is that which is true, beneficial and attached to meaning. Besides lying, also divisive speech, hurtful speech and foolish babbling are condemned by the Buddha.
The Fifth Precept is to refrain from taking intoxicants. Drink and drugs dull and befuddle the precious human intellect. Leading to heedlessness they are the root of many other wrong behaviours and much personal and social misery. Buddhism is all about sharpening and clarifying the mind which is the exact opposite of what we get from alcohol or marijuana etc. Those who think they can make progress on the path and indulge in intoxicants are only fooling themselves. And there is no ground for the view that a little doesn't hurt. We wouldn't consider applying this standard to the other precepts; a little bit of killing or stealing for example. A small pile of dung still smells like dung. The right amount of drink is none.
A fully rounded life must include mental development. Nothing is closer to us then our mind and the untrained mind is a cause of great distress. The concentrated and purified mind is capable of wonderful things and is the only source of true and abiding happiness. Meditation is best learnt from a qualified teacher, indeed this is essential for serious progress. Nevertheless a start can be made on one's own. Here is a simple beginner's exercise that anyone can do.
Sit in a comfortable posture, relaxed but alert, use a chair if you have to but make sure the spine is erect. Take a few deep breaths to relax the body and then begin. Concentrate on the movement of the breath through the nose. Mentally count the out-breaths from one to ten and then backwards again to one. Remain mentally silent but attentive on the in-breaths. Here is the tricky bit; while you are counting and watching should any stray thought arise in the mind then immediately return the count to one with the next breath. Example: "one, two, three, four, hmm this is easy - oops!, one, two..." Do not cheat.
This exercise done properly should very quickly demonstrate the unruly nature of the untrained mind. Don't be discouraged. Most people find it exceedingly difficult to get all the way up to ten and back at first. It will improve with perseverance. It is good to set aside a regular time for practice every day; start with ten minutes and work up to forty or even sixty minutes as it becomes comfortable.
When you can consistently get up to ten and back to one most of the time (but not before!) then try just breathing without the count, remaining focused on the sensation on the nose tip. At this point it would be of great benefit to consult a teacher.
The quintessential Buddhist practice is the practice of Mindfulness. To be simply aware of the passing phenomena as they occur. This is easier said than done and requires considerable mental development to be pursued properly.
One way to make a start on this is to develop the first Path Factor of Right View. This means to "see" things in their real nature as marked with the Three Characteristics of Suffering (dukkha or "unsatisfactoriness"), Impermanence and Not-Self. All phenomenal existence without exception is intrinsically unsatisfactory in that there is no "thing" which can yield lasting happiness. This is in large part because of the second characteristic; Impermanence. Everything which comes into existence passes away eventually; there is no stability or permanence anywhere to be found. All is in flux everywhere and for all time. In this flux there is no room for any enduring self-entity or soul which is the third and most subtle of the characteristics, that of not-self or anatta.
The deep contemplation of these truths will yield the pearl beyond price. "Be ever mindful Mogharaja, see the world as empty, abandon thoughts of self and you will reach that place beyond the ken of the King of Death." (Sutta Nipata)