The Buddha’s four great tasks

Gotama, the man we call the Buddha, lived in the northeast of what is now India roughly between 480BCE and 400BCE. In his first teaching, he presented his listeners with ‘a middle way’ that avoided the religious dead ends of his time – mortification and indulgence. To tread this middle way, we need to practice these four tasks, four seriously important tasks, and they are to:

  • Experience life – acknowledge and deeply understand and embrace the human condition, especially its inevitable difficulties
  • Let go of instinctive reactivity – the clutching and fantasising that these difficulties usually stimulate in us
  • See the stopping of that reactivity –  experience the profound peace of mind that comes from this letting go, and
  • Act – respond, say, see, set a direction in our lives, cultivate a path – ‘the eightfold path’ – in which we work on eight aspects of our lives:
  1. Complete vision – our understanding of our life process
  2. Complete intention – our intentions
  3. Complete speech – our communication with others
  4. Complete action – our ethically significant actions
  5. Complete livelihood – our approach to work
  6. Complete effort – the effort we put into our spiritual development
  7. Complete mindfulness – our presence of mind, and
  8. Complete collectedness – our mental integration.


Struggle by Fraser Williamson

Struggle by Fraser Williamson

Seriously tackling these four great tasks – which is best understood as a positive feedback loop rather than a linear progression – leads to a process of awakening, of realising our full human potential to live intelligently, compassionately and hopefully with wisdom.

Alone, or with others, we can experience the deepest fulfilment that we humans are capable of experiencing.

Awakening, then, is not revered as a transcendent insight into ultimate truth, nor the permanent achievement of some suprahuman condition. Rather, it’s a gradual deepening into the realities and enormous potential of the human condition itself.

In this talk, Stephen Batchelor examines and sketches these four tasks.

As Marcel Proust put it, ‘The real voyage of discovery lies not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.’