The Buddha's first enlightened disciples taught the Dharma or truth "as it is."
How does the ego distort things and not see them as they really are?
First of all, we rarely question what we see or hear or think, taking it instead to be self-evident. It is not. A great deal of distorting takes place. We do not see reality as it is.
Fundamentally, there are three misperceptions. The first is that things (I, me, self, phenomena, bodies, situations, understandings) are permanent. They are not. From this flows the second misperception, the idea that they are desirable and able to satisfy us. They are not. Implicit in all this is the third misperception, the idea that at least the ego (the thinker behind the thinking) exists. It does not.
- All phenomena are radically impermanent, not holding unchanged for even a single moment.
- All phenomena are unsatisfactory, incapable of being so.
- All phenomena are impersonal, empty, devoid of an ego.
It is not seen because the unsatisfactoriness of things is not penetrated at the ultimate level.
And it is not penetrated even superficially because impermanence is not reflected on. It would not be enough to reflect on the kind of impermanence we see all around us, which might lead to worldly disillusionment and the search for truth
It needs to be seen on the level of ultimate materiality-and-mentality -- particles (kalapas) and mind-moments (cittas) -- which is only possible with meditative concentration (jhana) and insight (vipassana).
Craving is the immediate cause of unsatisfactoriness. The first step toward enlightenment is disillusionment. But craving wants illusion! It does not want to wake up from it. From time to time we search for truth because we become disenchanted with the illusions.
But if the ego finds a comforting illusion again, it's again enchanted. Only SEEING THINGS AS THEY REALLY ARE (enlightenment) provides a final solution to the painful round, which otherwise continues life-after-life ad nauseum. There's no self in it, but what there is sure thinks there's a self. And not seeing reality, the "self" suffers.
If craving can be stilled, a concentrated-mind can quickly develop insight to see things just as they really are. Then enlightenment dawns, here and now, in this very life. This is the end of all suffering.
There's a little more to it, but not much:
- Insight leads to detachment (non-craving).
- Then the disillusioned mind, searching for something that is not limited and unsatisfactory, directly comes to know-and-see NIRVANA.
Is "nirvana" nothingness? No, listen to Lecture 6: Nibbana.
IN BRIEF: How to reach Enlightenment
Q: It sounds too complicated! Is there an easier way?
A: There is.
Q: What is it?
A: It's having made so much merit and put forth effort to understand in the past (as now) then hearing the Four Noble Truths.
Q: What if I already know the Four Noble Truths?
When Sariputra, the male disciple the Buddha named "foremost in wisdom" first heard an explanation of the Dharma from the enlightened monk Assaji, he immediately grasped the meaning and became a stream enterer, the first stage of enlightenment.
What was said? What and however it was said, and there was no magic to the specific wording, it explained the Four Noble Truths.
Nowadays, people think the Four Noble Truths are elementary, a depressing list to memorize then parrot back (even as the first truth goes against the stream of anything we find comforting or acceptable), the ABCs of "Buddhist Kindergarten."
What people don't realize is that realization of what these truths profoundly mean -- seeing them directly with insight -- is enlightenment. It is ignorance of the Four Noble Truths that is displaced by the arising of insight and the enlightened mind. One sees the Truth.
And the Truth sets one free.
Q: I see! By the way, what exactly did Assaji say that led to Sariputra's sudden enlightenment?
A: Again, it wasn't sudden. Desiring to be a chief disciple, he practiced for aeons awaiting the Bodhisatta's great enlightenment. What Assaji replied when Sariputra asked him to explain the Buddha's teaching in brief was this verse:
“Of all those things that from a cause arise,
The Tathagata the cause of has told;
And how they cease to be, that too he tells,
This is the teaching of the Great Recluse.”
Q: What does it mean?
A: It's a very brief outline of the Four Noble Truths: Various kinds of suffering (pain, lamentation, misery, etc.) arise. Their cause is made known (craving). Their cessation is also made known (nirvana). And how they cease to be, that too is made known (path).
Q: How do you know?
A: We asked an enlightened teacher. The story of how Sariputra could have attained so quickly didn't make sense to us since the Dharma is a gradual teaching. Then when it was explained, it did make sense.