Preface to this Edition
to Basic Buddhism
Life of the Buddha
Basic Teaching of the Buddha
Cardinal Tenets of Buddhism
Buddhist Attitude to God
Buddhist Attitude to Man
Wisdom and Enlightenment
Doctrines of Karma and Rebirth
10. Buddhist Cosmology and Nibbana
11. Buddhism and the Modern World
Becoming a Buddhist
Precepts and Meditation
Three Gems of Buddhism
Buddhist Tendencies in the West
of Pali Terms
First Published: Nov 1982
Second Edition: May 1992
Third Edition April 1997
Preface to the Third Edition
The first edition of this booklet appeared in November 1982
under the title Basic Buddhism: an Outline of the Buddha's Teaching. It
was published by the Buddhist Society of Queensland to commemorate the
centenary of the arrival of Theravada immigrants to Queensland. It grew out of a lecture given
to teachers of religion in Secondary Schools in October 1980. The following is
an extract from the original Preface:
"This introductory essay is confined to the basic
doctrines propounded by the Buddha over 2500 years ago. This message is
surprisingly modern, and more in keeping with the rational-scientific temper of
our age than the various theistic systems to which most of the people of the
world owe formal allegiance. A widespread interest in Buddhism in Australia is
relatively recent. It is important that the original doctrine of the Buddha,
divested of the cultural trappings and metaphysical speculations that has
gathered around it during its long sojourn in a dozen Asian lands, is placed
before the public. This booklet is written with that aim in mind."
A second edition of this publication appeared in 1994. It
made no changes to the main text of the first edition, except for some minor
corrections. However some new material, intended to amplify some of the
comments in the original text, were added as footnotes. Two Appendices were
also added. The first gave information for those who want to call themselves
Buddhists, and gives the basic precepts lay Buddhists are expected to observe.
The second identifies three main tendencies in Pali Buddhism in the West.
The present edition is a revision of the second edition.
Some new sections have been added. Some of this material first appeared as
articles published by the author in BSQ publications.
Since the first edition of this booklet in 1982 Buddhism
has greatly expanded in Australia.
However most of recent Buddhism has been ethnically oriented associated with
the activity of migrants from Buddhist Asian countries. Much of the recent
literature on Buddhism in Australia
has also been from this perspective. The need for a statement of Buddhism
divested of cultural trappings is thus still as urgent as it was in 1982. There
is therefore a need for a publication like the present one giving access to the
authentic message of the Buddha freed from cultural encumbrances and other
The objective of the present work is still to introduce the
central principles of Buddhism to the modern reader in the Western world in a
modern idiom. Buddhism has been well established in several Asian countries for
many centuries, but its expansion to other parts of the world has been
comparatively recent. As far as the West is concerned in the ancient Hellenic
world there was some contact with Buddhist thinking mainly due to Alexander's
expedition to Asia and Asoka's missions, some
of which are said to have been to the West. It has even been speculated that
the ethical teaching of Christianity may have some Buddhist links. But after
the conversion of Constantine
to Christianity the hitherto open attitude to religions was subverted and other
religions like Buddhism were barred.
The relative isolation of Buddhism to specific cultures,
with very little interaction even between countries which professed in varying
ways the Buddha's message, has led to the development of particular ethnic
traits in the national forms of Buddhism practised in these countries. It is
true that for the most part these ethnic influences have affected only relative
minor aspects of the practice of the Buddha's teaching, but it has nonetheless
been an impediment to the expansion of Buddhism to new areas. It is important
to divest Buddhism of its national peculiarities, and to seek the essence of
Buddhism, which is a message for all people irrespective of time and place. It
is this "original Buddhism" that we have termed Basic Buddhism.
Chapter 1 looks at this concept in more detail, but it should be remembered
that the term "basic" does not imply that Buddhism has been
simplified in any way.
A restatement of Basic Buddhism is necessary if the
Buddha's teaching is to be of use to those people who for historical reasons
have not had access to it. Only a small proportion of the world's population
are officially counted as professing Buddhism. This is partly due to the way in
which people are classed into religious groupings. Buddhism in its original
form does not fall into the conventional category of religion, and trying to
count the number of Buddhists is somewhat futile. But it is true that a large
number of people have scarcely heard of the Buddha, and many of those who have
done so have a very incorrect view of Buddhism. This is very often deliberately
propagated by the media and by other religions.
Even though the basic teaching of the Buddha has been known
in the modern West for over a century, most of this knowledge was confined to
academic circles. The widespread practice of Buddhism is relatively recent, and
now several Buddhist centres have sprung up in the West. In the last three
decades many traditional Buddhists from Asia
have migrated to the West, bringing with them ethnic forms of Buddhism. This
has made Buddhism more visible but it has also obscured to some extent the
central message of the Buddha. All these reasons make it necessary to give a
clear statement of the fundamental teaching of the Buddha to readers in the
West. This is the task that is attempted in this short booklet.
It is not possible to avoid Pali terms in an exposition of
Buddhism. A glossary of all Pali words used in this work is given in Appendix
F. If the meaning of a Pali word used in the text is not given in the context
the glossary should be consulted.
Dr V. A. Gunasekara
Introduction to Basic
The term Buddhism is now used to denote the
teaching of the Buddha, a historical person who flourished some 25 centuries
ago on the Indian subcontinent. This teaching has been described variously as a
religion, a philosophy, a psychological system, an ethico-moral code, a
socio-economic blue-print, and so on. No doubt all these aspects could be
discerned in different parts of the Buddha's teaching, but the teaching is
itself something more than all these combined. The term which Buddhists use to
designate the teaching is Dhamma or Dharma(1) . This term comes from a root term
meaning "to uphold", and means the basic law which
"upholds" the universe. It is therefore sometimes translated simply
as Law or Norm. It conveys some idea of the unity that informs the whole body
of the Buddha's teaching. We shall use the words dhamma and Buddhism as
The term "Basic Buddhism" is used in this work to
denote those elements of Buddhism as currently propagated which could be
attributed fairly unambiguously to the Buddha himself. It is a basic argument
here that this teaching can not only be practised effectively in the modern
world but also conforms to the modern scientific view of the world(2) . In seeking to establish the content of
Basic Buddhism we have to start with a consideration of the different schools
of Buddhism that have arisen in the course of history. The Buddha did not leave
written records, and his disciples transmitted his teaching initially as an
oral tradition. Quite early in its history several distinct schools of Buddhism
arose based partly on the interpretation of common discourses, and partly on
differing texts of the discourses themselves. There is a substantial degree of
agreement between these diverse schools, and they have never exhibited an
animosity towards each other comparable to the schisms that have characterised
many other religions.(3) It is from the scriptures of these
various schools of Buddhism, particularly from the Pali Canon, that the
original message of the Buddha, which we term Basic Buddhism, has to be
About three centuries after the death of the Buddha several
different schools of Buddhism emerged, but the differences between them were
slight and related to minor points. However towards the beginning of the Common
Era (CE)(4) some of these groups gave a new
interpretation to the Buddha's teaching and called themselves the Mahâyâna
("Greater Vehicle") School. They called the earlier schools the
"Hinayâna" (Lesser Vehicle) school. However this term was never
accepted by the schools who were designated by it. Of these schools only one
survives today(5) . This is the Theravâda ("Doctrine
of the Elders") school which claims to carry on the Buddhism of the early
followers of the Buddha. This view is now generally accepted and the Mahâyâna
is seen as a new innovation in Buddhism but still containing some of the
essence of the original teaching. These two traditions have also been termed
the Southern and Northern schools of Buddhism because of the geographical areas
in which each prevailed. Each of these traditions has its own versions of the
Buddhist scriptures. All Theravada groups subscribe to a common set of basic
books (called the Pali Canon after the language, Pali, in which it is
recorded). We shall however refer to the original Buddhism as Pali Buddhism
rather than Theravada Buddhism.
(6) Amongst the Mahâyâna there is a much greater
diversity of schools, doctrines, languages and texts. Initially Sanskrit was
the language of the Indian Mahayâna schools, but many of these were later
translated to Chinese and China
soon became the centre of Mahayâna Buddhism. From there it spread to many other
countries including Korea, Japan (where the best known school of Buddhism
is Zen) and Tibet
(where a distinct variety of Mahâyâna Buddhism called the Vajrayâna or the
"Diamond Vehicle" developed).
In its fundamental doctrines basic Buddhism is closer to
Pali Buddhism than to the Mahâyâna schools. This is because the Pali Canon is
the oldest compilation of the Buddha's teaching, and closest to the actual
words of the Buddha. Its present form was settled at the Third Council of
Buddhists held during the reign of King Asoka of Ancient India about 250 BCE.
The Pali Canon was thus systemised quite early, and has changed very little,
indeed if at all, since then. It was committed to writing in the first century
BCE, and this preserved the texts from possible further verbal corruption. The
Pali Canon (like some other Buddhist canons) consists of three sections (called
Piakas or baskets) dealing with the Vinaya (monastic
discipline), Sutta (doctrines) and the Abhidhamma
(the analysis of the Dhamma).
While the principles and practice of basic Buddhism has to
be sought in the Pali Canon (especially in the Vinaya and the Sutta
piakas), actual Theravâda theory shows some development from early Buddhism.
This took three directions:
Some of the material
in the third section of the Canon, the Abhidhamma Pitaka, was composed at a
later date, and employed a didactic and taxonomic method in analysing the
psychological and philosophical concepts introduced by the Buddha. The
empirical method it employed to verify the Buddha's teaching was meditative
contemplation (especially insight meditation), and it excluded the use of other
empirical methods such as those employed by modern science.
efforts of the great medieval scholastics like Buddhaghosa and Dharmapâla
tended to ossify the meaning and interpretation of the Buddha's discourses,
which was taken to be authoritative interpretations of the Dhamma.
developments in the Mahayâna came to influence not only the practices of
Theravâda, but also some aspects of Theravâda doctrine as well. These
developments must be taken into account in the reconstruction of the original
message of the Buddha.
It must not be thought that Basic Buddhism should exclude
everything found in the Mahayana teachings. While Mahayana has little to
contribute to the reconstruction of the theory of early Buddhism, it did retain
some early Buddhist practices which play a subordinate role in Pali Buddhism but
could play a useful role in modern Buddhist practice. Mahayana Buddhism shifted
the Buddhist ideal from the Arahant of Theravada Buddhism to the Bodhisattva.
The Bodhisattva was seen as a being who while being capable of enlightenment
and release from samsâra, wilfully postpones becoming fully liberated in order
to help others. A natural consequence of this view was that the primary
Buddhist virtue was compassion (karunâ). In contrast to this Theravada had
regarded mettâ (loving-kindness) as the dominant virtue. There is a need
to reinstate compassion in Buddhist practice at least to an extent equal to
that given to mettâ.
Another aspect of Mahâyâna that is important is the greater
role given to the lay community in contrast to that of monks. Early Buddhism
had denoted by the Sangha the community of all Buddhists who had made some
progress in the Dhamma. This Sangha included both monks and lay persons, but
Theravada Buddhism tended to be excessively centred on the monastic orders, and
included in the Sangha only ordained monks, and sometimes reserved for them the
exclusive role as teachers of the Dhamma. Mahâyâna took a more flexible
attitude. While the role of monks in Buddhism cannot be underrated, and they
will continue to play an important part in contemporary Buddhism, it is clear
that basic Buddhism should reinstate the role of the lay community(7) .
Basic Buddhism should not be seen as an innovation in
Buddhism but rather as an attempt to go back to the roots of Buddhism, to what
would have been the actual doctrines preached originally by the Buddha. Go
The Life of the Buddha
The founder of Buddhism was an historical person, Siddhatta
Gtama who lived in North India from 563 BCE to
483 BCE. (8) His father was Suddhodana the
ruler of the Sâkyas a people inhabiting a country which lay on the border
between modern Nepal and India. At the
time of his birth his mother Mahâmâyâ was on a journey and he was born in a
park at Lumbini on the full moon day of the month of April-May in the year 563
BCE. A commemorative pillar was erected on the spot by King Asoka some three
Several legends are attached to the birth of Sidhatta,
including a prophecy by the brahmin Asita that he would either be a great
("universal") ruler or a fully enlightened teacher. It is said that
Suddhodana wanted his son to become a monarch rather than a great religious
teacher, and accordingly brought him up in the lap of luxury with the training
befitting a future king. But very little is known of the early life of
Sidhatta. No indication of his future destiny is recorded other than a
reference to an incident when as a child he went into a meditative trance while
seated in an open field watching an agricultural festival. When he was sixteen
Sidhatta was married to Bhaddakaccânâ (also known as Yasodarâ).
The events that forced his decision to renounce the life of
luxury he was leading and take to the religious life occurred when he was about
29 years of age. It is claimed that at this time he encountered the famous four
signs, that of an old man, of a sick man, of a corpse and of a religious
recluse, and that these led him to question the unsatisfactoriness of life and
the need to find a way of escape from its travails. The misery and brevity of
human existence struck him with force, and also the desire to find a solution
to the problems of life. But the critical event was the birth of his first
child, a son who was named Râhula. When the child was born Gotama realised that
if he were to assume the role of a parent he would never leave the household
life in this quest for the meaning of life, and accordingly he decided to
renounce the household life. Fearing that a public announcement would bring
pressure to change his mind, he left his palace with only his charioteer
accompanying him, donned the garments of a recluse and went into the homeless
Gotama thus became a samana [sramana] or religious
mendicant. The samanas were people who devoted their entire time to the search
for religious truth. They did not adhere to the prevailing religious orthodoxy
of the day, the Brahmanical religion based on the ancient Vedas. They were
highly individualistic and engaged in a variety of practices. The next seven
years of Gotama's life were devoted to his quest. He became the pupils of the
leading religious teachers of his day, such as Âlâra Kâlâma and Uddaka
Râmaputta. They were the leading exponents of meditation of the day, and Gotama
mastered all the meditation techniques they could teach including the
development of the jhânas. Since these did not provide the solution he
was seeking he continued in his search.
By this time his wandering had taken him south of the Ganges river. He now formed an association with five
other samanas, who were more inclined to the practice of austerities. But even
these did not satisfy Gotama. He now continued his search alone. His search
finally ended on the full moon day in the month of Vesâkha (April-May) in the
year 528 BCE when he meditating under an Asattha or Pippala tree (ficus
religiosa) near Uruvelâ (now known as Buddha-Gayâ). He had become the
Buddha (a term meaning the "Enlightened One"), by which title he was
henceforth to be universally known. The tree has come to be known as the Bodhi
(or Bo) tree, and is regarded as a symbol of the Buddha's enlightenment.
After considerable thought he decided to proclaim his
discovery for the benefit of mankind. His hesitation arose from the complexity
of the system he had discovered, and its opposition to the comfortable beliefs
which then as now appeared to offer an easier solution to the spiritual needs
of people. The first proclamation of the Dhamma took place at the deer-park in
Isipatana close to the city of Sarnath (near
modern Benares) to the five former ascetic
companions, who became the Buddha's first disciples. From that day on until his
death some 45 years later the Buddha travelled around Northern
India tirelessly proclaiming his message. The five ascetics became
the first members of the Buddhist Sangha (or Community of disciples) which has
survived to this day in unbroken succession.
The exact chronology of the Buddha's ministry has not been
recorded and cannot be reconstructed. His more important discourses are
preserved, but while they indicate the circumstances leading to each discourse,
and often the place of its delivery, there is generally no indication of the
date or even year of the discourse. From the places mentioned in the discourses
it is possible to reconstruct the area of the Buddha's travels. This was
confined mainly to the middle Gangetic plain with Kapilavatthu to the North,
Uruvelâ to the South, and Campa to the East. The Western extent is not certain,
some suttas being delivered not far from the modern Delhi. This area straddled the Ganges river, and included parts of two important
kingdoms in the Buddha's time. These were Kosala which was located North of the
river Ganges with Sâvatthi as its capital, and Magadha which was to the South of
Kosala with Rajagaha as its capital. The Buddha became well known in both these
kingdoms and their capital cities. There are legendary accounts of visits of
the Buddha to places as far away as Sri Lanka, and even to heavenly
domains, but these have no historical basis.
The Buddha and his followers initially followed the
wandering life of the samanas, but soon developed the habit of staying
at least part of the year in a monastery. The period of monastic sojourn came
to be known as the "rains retreat" (vas) because it coincided
with the Indian monsoon. The monasteries were donated by wealthy lay followers.
In the early years the Buddha spent his rains retreats south of the Ganges river mainly at Râjagaha, but gradually moved
north. In the later years the most frequently visited location was Sâvatthi,
where the Buddha spent 23 of the last 25 rains retreats. The very last rains
retreat was spent at Vesali when the Buddha was on his last journey from
Râjagaha to Sâvatthi.(9) The Buddha's death (parinibbâna)
took place at a place called Kusinâra mid-way between Vesâli and Sâvatthi.
While some debate may attach to the exact dates of the
Buddha's life there can be no doubt about the historicity of the Buddha (10). The Buddha's teaching, unlike
that of many other founders of religious systems, was so unique, original and
consistent that it could only have been the work of a single person. The Buddha
did not appropriate on himself the role of a God or of a prophet of God, in
order to validate his teachings. His teachings were derived from his own
unaided efforts. (11)
Recently discovered archaeological evidence corroborate the
accounts in the texts. These include the discovery of urns with inscriptions
indicating that they were the receptacle for the relics of the Buddha. King
Asoka's pillars, though a few centuries after the death of the Buddha also
identify the places associated with the life story of the Buddha. The most
recent discoveries have been archaeological remains authenticating the
birthplace of the Buddha as Lumbini.
There is a detailed account of the last days of the Buddha
in the Mahâparinibbâna sutta, but no such detailed information is available for
any other part of his life. After his death the relics of the Buddha was
distributed and stupas were built over them.Go
The Basic Teaching of the
Buddhism recognises no creeds whose uncritical acceptance
is expected of its followers. Instead the Buddha enunciated certain basic laws
and truths whose veracity he invited his followers to test for themselves. One
of the traditional epithets of the Dhamma is "ehipassiko" (meaning
literally "come and see") which is an appeal to the empirical
verification of the Dhamma.
In his very first discourse the Buddha identified Four
Noble Truths as forming the core of the Dhamma. These four Truths have since
become a convenient way of stating the fundamentals of the Dhamma. They are
often regarded as the most basic teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha also
identified three fundamental characteristics (tilakkhana) of the Dhamma.
These basic tenets the Buddha presented in several ways. Two such presentations
have become well known. These are the Three Signata (tilakkhana), perhaps
better rendered as the three basic laws, and the Four Noble Truths. The
acceptance of the validity of these laws and truths, if only in the first instance
as a working hypothesis, is the sin qua non of a Buddhist. In addition
the Buddha proclaimed several other doctrines, the most important being those
of karma and re-birth. The validity of such doctrines is more difficult for an
ordinary person to verify, but their dogmatic acceptance is not expected as a
fundamental requirement of those who go for refuge to the "Three
Gems" of Buddhism (12).
The three signata and the four truths form the core of the
Dhamma. They are at the same time both alternatives and complements to each
other. It may however be appropriate to consider them separately.
The Three Fundamental Laws of the Buddha
The three signata refer to the three essential marks or
characteristics of all "compounded" things, animate or inanimate,
microscopic or macroscopic. Because of the universality of their applicability
they could be considered as having the force of universal laws. These
characteristics are impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and
insubstantiality (anatta). As these translations of the basic Pâli terms are
only approximate, a further elaboration of these basic concepts of the Dhamma
(1) Anicca. The law of impermanence asserts that all
phenomena are subject to constant change, to rise and fall, and no permanent
states, either physical or animate, exists. The dynamic nature of phenomena is
today a commonplace of science. But until quite recently many physical features
of the universe were considered immutable, and in the human plane the belief in
enduring states or characteristics is still an article of faith in many
religious systems. The law of anicca establishes impermanence as the basic
(2) Dukkha. The law of dukkha states that all
complexes of phenomena, are in the final analysis unsatisfactory. It means that
no compounded thing or state could be considered as a universal norm of
goodness or beauty. It imparts the normative dimension into the consideration
of objective reality which is the hallmark of the Dhamma. The law of dukkha is
usually considered in relation to the human situation, and here
unsatisfactoriness manifests itself as "suffering", which is the
popular rendition of the term. It is in this sense that it constitutes the
first of the four Noble Truths.
(3) Anatta. The third law states that there is no
permanent essence, "self", ego, or soul in phenomena. The term
originates as the negation of the concept of atta (âtman) which was the
equivalent in the old Brahmanical religion of the Buddha's day to what other
religions have called the "soul". The Buddha advanced psycho-physical
explanation of the individual which leaves no room for a soul. The Buddha
recognised that the delusion of self or ego was one of the most powerful of
human instincts, and at the same time one of the most potent sources of
ignorance and wrong action. In applying the anatta doctrine to the phenomena of
the external world some care mush be exercised. Early Buddhism did not deny the
reality of the external world. It argued that the phenomena of the external
world could be broken down into its constituent components, and that nothing
else other than these components existed. It was only in this sense that the
phenomena of the external world were declared to be empty (suñña). Some schools
of Mahayâna Buddhism have taken the doctrine of emptiness (suññâtâ) to imply a
denial of the reality of the external world. This interpretation is foreign to
early Buddhism. Early Buddhism only asserts that there is no fixed essence or
being in phenomena, but only a process of becoming (bhâva).
The Four Noble Truths
The four noble truths result from the application of the
three basic laws to the human condition. The Buddha frequently asserted that he
was interested in the problem of the alleviation of human suffering: "Only
one thing do I teach, suffering, and how to end it". His approach to the
problem of suffering was similar to that of the physician to his patient. He
first diagnoses the malady, then seeks the cause of the malady, next finds out
whether a cure is possible. Finally he prescribes the medicine. The four truths
correspond to the four steps of this diagnostic-curative procedure.
(1) The Truth of Suffering.
This truth affirms that the law of dukkha is applicable to
the human condition:
"Birth is suffering, decay is suffering, death is
suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering. To be
separated from the pleasant is suffering; to be in contact with the unpleasant
is suffering; in short the five aggregates of existence connected with
attachment are all suffering".
The validity of the truth of suffering need not be
belaboured here; it is essentially a matter for personal verification. The
truth of dukkha refers not to the on-existence of the pleasurable and the
joyful, but to the very incompleteness and finitude of that enjoyment. The
imputation of pessimism sometimes made of early Buddhism is without foundation;
suffering in the Buddhist sense encompasses what is usually termed
"evil" in other religo-philosophical systems, and the existence of
evil, caused either by chance events or by deliberate ill-will is not seriously
(2) The Truth of the Cause of Suffering.
The proximate cause of suffering is craving (tanhâ), but
the root cause of ignorance (avijjâ). The objects of craving are manifold:
sensual pleasure, material possessions, glory, power, fame, ego, craving for
re-birth, even craving for nibbâna (nirvâna). There are various degrees of
craving from a mild wish to an acute grasping (upâdâna). Craving is the
proximate cause of suffering and is itself caused by other conditioning
factors. The full formula of causation is contained in the Buddhist formula of
dependent origination, where the causes for existence and suffering are traced
back through a chain of twelve links, back to ignorance.
(3) The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering.
This growth constitutes the "good news" of
Buddhism. The cause of suffering could be counteracted. This truth affirms that
a way out of suffering exists, which if followed will lead the individual to a
state of non-suffering called nibbâna, perhaps better known by the Sanskrit
form of the term, Nirvâna. If the first truth could be considered to have a
taint of "pessimism", this truth has the full flavour of
(4) The Truth of the Path to Enlightenment.
The Buddhist path to enlightenment is that discovered by
the Buddha through his own personal effort and practice. It has been called the
Middle Path (majjima paipadâ) because it is a via media between the
extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Both extremes of practice
were common in the Buddha's day (as indeed they are in out own). The Buddha
calls such extremes vain, profitless and ignoble. The path of the Buddha avoids
two kinds of activity usually considered essential for salvation by many
religious systems. These are: (1) prayer to supra human powers and agencies,
and (2) elaborate rites and rituals. On the contrary these are considered as
being positive impediments on the path to the cessation of suffering and the
gaining of insight and wisdom.
While the Four Noble Truths and the Three Laws of Existence
contain the kernel of the Buddha's teaching, and were proclaimed by the Buddha
in his very first discourse, there are many other doctrines that are central to
a philosophical system which is as deep as that of Buddhism. A few of these
aspects of the teaching will be mentioned here and a few of these will be
considered in detail elsewhere.
The Goal of Buddhism and the Meaning of Life
The Buddhist goal is the achievement of human perfection,
which should be the real purpose of life. It is in this sense that life has
meaning, and which should inform the most salient aspects of human activity. A
person who has made good progress along the Buddhist path would have reached a
high degree of happiness, contentment and freedom from fear. Sometimes material
affluence is seen as the goal of many persons, but these do not necessarily
bring about the happiness which the Buddha sought to promote.
Many religions look upon the present life as a ground for
laying the foundation in a future life after physical death. Some Buddhists
also adopt this attitude and try to secure a good rebirth or even Nibbâna
without residue. Exhortations from the Buddha could be produced to this effect.
But the Buddha also affirms that we must make use of the present life, of which
we are sure, and that the pursuit of the Noble Eightfold Path is the best way
of doing so regardless of any consequences that may happen after death.
The Theory of Causality
One of the central doctrines of Buddhism is that all
phenomena owe their origin and existence to pre-conditioning factors.
Everything is the result of a some cause or other working on the thing
concerned. This is a view that is also shared by modern science, for without
the operation of systematic causes much of the achievement of modern science
may not be possible. But whereas science generally restricts this principle to
physical phenomena and events, in Buddhism the theory of causation considers
causation as a central characteristic of all phenomena, even non-physical ones
which do not form the subject matter of scientific enquiry.
The Buddhist theory of causation should be distinguished
from the theory of the "First Cause" which is often used by theists
to prove the existence of God. The theory of the first cause asserts that since
God is identified as the first cause (all others being "created" by
God) there is no need to explain the existence of God. Buddhism does not agree
with this position and considers it as another instance of sophistry
("eel-wriggling") to which theists resort to sustain their absurd
The Doctrine of Dependent Origination
This is one of the cardinal discoveries of the Buddha
during his enlightenment. It is presented as a list of twelve bases which are
causally linked to each other. Since the links from a closed circle we can
break into the chain at any point. The order in the traditional list is as
follows: (1) Ignorance, (2) Volitional formations (sankhâra), (3)
consciousness, (4) mind-and-form, (5) sense-bases, (6) contact, (7) feeling,
(8) craving, (9) clinging, (10) becoming, (11) birth, (12) old-age-and-death.
There are various ways of interpreting this chain, but we
shall not deal with them here. The traditional interpretation of this is that
it represents three phases often interpreted as lifetimes. The first phase (the
past) is comprised of links 1 and 2; the second (the present) of links 3 to 10,
and the third (the future) of links 11 and 12. In the ongoing process what if
the present becomes and past and what is the future becomes the present. A
detailed explication of this famous formula is not attempted here.
Emptiness and non-Self
The doctrine of "emptiness" (unyâtâ) is more
associated with Mahayana than with Theravada. If it represents another term for
the anatta doctrine described earlier it presents no new problem. However some
Mahayana interpretations tend towards philosophical idealism and towards the
Hindu notion that the world is an illusion (mâyâ) but such an interpretation
cannot be entertained by Basic Buddhism.
Humanism and Rationalism
Basic Buddhism has some affinity with Western notions of
humanism and rationalism. However these terms are used in a variety of
contexts, with humanism associated with theistic notions on the one hand and
extreme secular-materialist notions on the other. But if humanism means what it
should mean, that is the primacy of the human as against the Divine, then it
conforms to the Buddhist approach.
With rationalism as the application of reason and the
scientific method to investigation there is much in common. One of the basic
sutta of the Buddha, the Kâlâma Sutta given in the Anguttara Nikâya is rightly
regarded as the Buddhist charter for free inquiry.Go
The Buddhist Path
The Buddha's path of practice is called the Noble Eightfold
path. The eight components of this path, as presented in traditional order,
could be briefly described as follows:
1. Right View (Understanding).
This is the right way of interpreting and viewing the
world. It involves the realisation of the three signata in all phenomena, and
of the Four Noble Truths as being applicable to the human condition. More
generally it involves the abandonment of all dogmatically held wrong views.
2. Right Intention (Thought).
The Buddha argued that all human thought and action spring
from basic "intentions", "dispositions", or
"roots", which are capable of deliberate cultivation, training and
control. The three roots of wrong, unwholesome or "unskilful" action
are: Greed, Aversion and Delusion. The right intention which the Buddhist path
requires, is an intention which is free from these roots. The Buddha called the
intention "that is free from greed and lust, free from ill-will, free from
3. Right Speech.
Since speech is the most powerful means of communication,
the Buddha emphasises the cultivation of right modes of speech. These have been
described as avoiding falsehood and adhering to the truth; abstaining from
tale-bearing and instead promoting harmony; refraining from harsh language and
cultivating gentle and courteous speech; avoiding vain, irresponsible and
foolish talk, and speaking in reasoned terms on subjects of value. Naturally
right speech includes in the modern context right ways of communication
whatever the medium used.
4. Right Action.
This refers to wilful acts done by a person, whether by
body or mind. Under the former it involves such forms of ethical conduct as not
killing (or harming) living beings, theft, sexual wrong-doing, etc. (14) On the positive side right
action, also called wholesome deeds (kusalakamma), involves acts of
loving-kindness (mettâ), compassion (karunâ), sympathetic joy (mudita),
generosity (câga), etc.
5. Right Livelihood.
This involves not choosing an occupation that brings
suffering to others, e.g. trading in living beings (including humans), arms,
drugs, poisons, etc.; slaughtering, fishing, soldiering, sooth-saying,
trickery, usury, etc. This provides the economic blueprint for a truly Buddhist
6. Right Effort.
This has been described as "the effort of avoiding or
overcoming evil and unwholesome things, and of developing and maintaining
wholesome things" (Ñyânâtiloka). Right effort enables an individual to
cultivate the right frame of mind in order to accomplish the ethical
requirements under right speech, right action and right livelihood. It is
generally presented as a factor of mental training, enabling individuals to
develop the sublime states of loving-kindness (mettâ) compassion (karunâ),
sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha). However it
has a general applicability and the effort could be directed to all wholesome
7. Right Mindfulness.
This is the basic Buddhist technique of cultivating
awareness. The classic sutta on the subject is the satipahâna sutta which will
be considered briefly in the next chapter. Although viewed as a meditation
component in fact right awareness has a wider applicability.
8. Right Concentration.
This is the concentration of mind associated with wholesome
consciousness which could be achieved through the systematic cultivation of
meditation. Progress along this line is indicated by the achievement of the
different levels of "absorption" (jhânas). (15)
Of these eight components of the Path, the first two have
usually been grouped under wisdom (paññâ), the next three under morality
(sîla), and the last three under mental development (bhâvanâ).
This classification is not quite satisfactory, but it does present a broad
grouping that is useful in many contexts.
The first of these components (right view) is generally
considered the most important, but there is no particular order of importance
when it comes to the others. However different traditions and exponents have
put different degrees of stress on the different components. It will be seen
that there is no single component of the path that can be called
"meditation". However in course of time the component of mental
development came to be regarded as meditation. In view of the importance
attached to meditation, particularly in Western practice it is necessary to
examine this subject in the special subsection. This is done in the following
section.Go to Contents
The Role of Meditation
We have seen that the Buddhist path consists of
wisdom/knowledge, ethical conduct, and mental development. Some teachers put an
almost exclusive emphasis on the last of these (calling it
"meditation") as the route to the other two. Because of the
widespread propagation of this view in the West it is worth considering it in
some detail(16) .
The widely held picture of meditation in the West is one
where the meditator sits in silent company, usually in the "lotus
position", and is engaged in inward contemplation. The session may last
from a half-hour to several hours. It is generally a congregational activity
but it is usually presided over by a teacher who determines the duration of the
session and may give directions as to how the activity is to proceed.
Practitioners are encouraged to engage in the activity individually at home if
congregational meditation is not possible. Often special meditation retreats
are held lasting from 3 to 14 days in which up to 12 hours a day may be devoted
to meditation activities. Because of the long periods involved sitting
meditation is alternated with "walking meditation", sometimes also
with yogic exercises. Often silence is enforced during the retreat (called the
Rule of Golden Silence), and the teacher has individual meetings with each
participant during which the individual practitioner's "progress" is
probed and special instructions given. The teacher is very often looked upon as
a "guru" as in the Hindu tradition. This type of meditative exercise
is often represented as the exclusive way to "practice" Buddhism. We
shall use the term "stylised meditation"(17) to designate this kind of meditation.
Meditation on the other hand has always been a valid part
of Buddhist practice (note however that is a part, nor the whole of it). The
task is then to differentiate genuine Buddhist meditation from stylised
meditation. Buddhist mediation is the practice of the last two components of
the eightfold path (sati and samâdhi) in the "right"(sammâ)
manner. The Pali term that is used to denote stylised meditation is bhavanâ.
This term is not used with great frequency in the Pali Canon and when used is
associated with mental development from whatever kind of activity that will
improve the mind.
Stylised meditation is derived from meditation practices in
the principal Asian Theravada countries, viz. Sri
each of which has developed their own meditation traditions. In spite of the
diversity within each country a few broad generalisation may be possible. In Sri Lanka the
primary focus of Buddhist practice has been on the cultivation of paññâ
and in the development of ethical practice (sîla). Meditation has not
occupied great prominence and has been undertaken on an individual basis,
rarely performed in a congregational setting. In this the Sri Lankan Buddhists
have generally followed the instructions on meditation given in the
Visuddhimagga of Buddhaghosa which was composed in that country. Where
meditation has been used as the principal focus in Sri Lanka it has been practised by
reclusive forest monks with little contact with the rest of the Bhikkhu-sangha
or the laity. The country from where stylised meditation was introduced into
the West is Thailand.
Here the "forest" orders have enjoyed much more status than
elsewhere. They tend to look on stylised meditation as the key to the entire
Buddhist practice including the achievement of wisdom and morality. This system
attaches much importance to the jhânas which is considered almost
indispensable to enlightenment. There is little attempt at sutta-study except
those relating to meditation. While this kind of meditation may suit the
lifestyle of forest monks it is their importation into the general community,
especially of lay persons, that is questionable. If the Sri Lankan and Thai
modes of meditation can be taken as occupying two ends of a spectrum the
meditation practice of Burma
occupies an intermediate position. Here meditation is taken more seriously than
in the Sri Lankan tradition but some of the excesses of the Thai forest
tradition are avoided(18) .
Buddhist meditation of whatever type takes two principal
forms - the cultivation of calm and tranquillity (samatha bhâvanâ) and
the cultivation of insight (vipassanâ bhâvanâ). The efficacy of
meditation in promoting calm and tranquillity is indisputable. In fact it is
for this reason that it is also adopted by some non-Buddhist schemes such as
Hinduism and "transcendental meditation". But its use as a method of
achieving insight into reality it may be questioned. True insight comes only we
understand that the three signata underlie all phenomena. In meditation one may
come to the realise this within in the ambit of ones own experience, but it will
not lead one understand the universality of these traits. Thus meditation has
to be supplemented by other methods such as the first two components of the
The classic discourse on which the theory of meditation is
based is the Satipahâna Sutta, which occurs twice in the Canon. Here the Buddha
identifies four methods (or foundations) of meditation. These are the
contemplation of the body (kâyânupassanâ), of feeling (vedanânupassanâ),
of the mind (cittânupassanâ) and finally that of the dhammas (dhammânupassanâ).
Some preconditions are laid down in the Sutta before these contemplations are
attempted. One is that the practitioner should have "overcome in this
world covetousness and discontent" (vineyya loke abhijjâ domanassa).
In the case of lay persons this does not require complete withdrawal from the
world, but the development of a sufficient degree of detachment from it. The
Satipahâna cannot be attempted by those completely given to greed. The second
is that the contemplations should be done in an empty room (suññâgâra)
or if outdoors at the root of a tree. This rules out the congregational
sessions in which stylised meditation takes place.
The contemplation of the body, with the initial focus on
the breath, is the initial contemplation that is taught by most teachers. The
Buddha used it purely as the starting point of his sequence of contemplations,
and he even recommends the "lotus position" in which to undertake the
contemplations, which is a classic yogic stance. The Buddha extended the
traditional Vedic meditation concerns by extending the contemplation to other
physical postures and awareness of other bodily actions, and finally to the
contemplation of the foulness of the body. The progress of the meditation from
the body to feelings is also relatively easy for many practitioners. The next
stage of the contemplation of the mind is relatively more difficult. The
objective here is to achieve one-pointedness of mind. This is relatively
difficult because of the propensity of the mind to shift quite fast.
The last one requires contemplation of the Dhammas. In the
Buddha's time when the corpus of dhamma was memorised, this contemplation was
the only way of acquiring the knowledge of the dhamma. Today the situation is
somewhat different and this particular foundation of mindfulness could be
acquired by discursive study.
The view that the awakening of wisdom can only come through
intense meditation is not only found in schools like Zen but is also held by
some teachers of Theravâda(19) . However meditation in Buddhism is
primarily a method of mental training. It could be used to calm the mind, to
instil tranquillity, and to set the stage for the realisation of true insight.
In fact fascination with meditation can be a distraction from the true path. A
capable exponent of early Buddhism David Maurice puts this quite well:
"There is meditation at the very beginning of the practice but the
practice is to get away from meditation" (20) .
Even though stylised meditation may not be necessary it is
necessarily harmful. It could suit the temperament of some people, especially
those who desire a strict discipline. On the other hand what we have termed
Buddhist meditation is something that anyone can do with profit. It may not
lead to the final goal in itself, but it could be a great help in the
fulfilment of the other components of the path.
Go to Contents
The Buddhist Attitude to
It is first of all necessary to establish what is meant by
the term "God". This term is used to designate a Supreme Being
endowed with the qualities of omnipotence and omniscience, who is the creator
of the universe with all its contents, and the chief law-giver for humans. God
is generally considered as being concerned with the welfare of his human
creatures, and the ultimate salvation of those who follow his dictates. God is
therefore a person of some kind, and the question whether such an entity exists
or not is fundamental to all theistic systems.
In contrast to this notion of a personal God some modern
theologians have interpreted the term "God" as representing some kind
of abstract principle of good (or "ground of being"). This view was
first developed in the ancient Indian Upanishads where God is equated
with an abstract principle (Brahman). The ancient Indian philosophers
could entertain such a view because they also had a theory of karma which
really does away with the need for a personal God. Buddhists too have a theory
of karma, which is different from that of the Hindus, and which even more
unequivocally dispenses with the need for a Deity. The use of the term
"God' to denote an abstract reality by monotheistic theologians who have
no theory of karma is difficult to justify; one suspects that this is merely a
device to explain away the contradictions that arise from the notion of a personal
God. In fact the actual practice of theistic religion proceeds as if God is a
real person of some kind or other.
Just as Buddhism rejects the notion of a Supreme God it
also rejects the notion of an abstract God-principle operating in the universe.
The notion of Brahman (in the neuter) is not discussed at all in the
Buddhist texts, and even in India it may well be a post-Buddhist development
resulting from the attempt to reconcile the belief in God(s) with the powerful
critique of the Buddha. It is therefore the attitude of Buddhism to the notion
of a supreme personal God animating the Universe that we must consider.
One popular misconception of Buddhism must be dismissed at
this point. This is view that the Buddha is some kind of God figure. In the
Theravada tradition the Buddha is regarded as a supremely enlightened human
teacher who has come to his last birth in samsra (the Buddhist cycle of
existence). Even Mahayana traditions which tend to think in terms of
transcendental Buddhas do not directly make a claim for Buddha as God. Thus the
Buddha cannot be considered as playing a God-like role in Buddhism.
In the Buddhist texts Mahâ Brahmâ is the equivalent of God
and is represented as claiming the following attributes for himself: "I am
Brahmâ, the Great Brahmâ, the Supreme One, the Mighty, the All-seeing, the
Ruler, the Lord of all, the Maker, the Creator, the Chief of all appointing to
each his place, the Ancient of days, the Father of all that is and will
be." (Dgha Nikya, II, 263).
The Buddha dismisses all these claims of Mahâ Brahmâ as
being due to his own delusions brought about by ignorance. Mahâ-Brahmâ is seen
simply a deva unenlightened and subject to the samsric process as
determined by his kamma (cf the Brahmajla and the Aggañña Suttas). In the Khevadda
Sutta he is forced to admit to an inquiring monk that he is unable to answer a
question that is posed to him, and advises the monk to consult the Buddha. This
clearly shows the Brahm acknowledges the superiority of the Buddha.
In the West a number of "arguments" have been
adduced to prove or disprove the existence of God. Some of these were
anticipated by the Buddha. One of the most popular is the "first
cause" argument according to which everything must have a cause, and God
is considered the first cause of the Universe. The Buddhist theory of causation
says that every thing must have preconditions for its existence, and this law
must also extend to "God" should such an entity exist. But while the
"first cause" claims that God creates everything, it exempts God from
the ambit of this law. However if exemptions are made with respect to God such
exemptions could be made with respect to other things also hereby contradicting
the principle of the first cause.
But the argument which the Buddha most frequently uses is
what is now called the "argument from evil" which in the Buddhist
sense could be stated as the argument from dukkha (suffering or
unsatisfactoriness). This states that the empirical fact of the existence of dukkha
cannot be reconciled with the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient being
who is also all good. The following verses from the Bhûridatta Jataka bring
this out clearly:
If the creator of the world
sace hi so issaro sabbaloke
They call God, of every being be
Brahmâ bahûbhûtapati pajâna
Why does he order such
ki sabbaloke vidahîalakkhi
And not create happiness but
ki sabbaloka na sukhi akâsi
If the creator of the world
sace hi so issaro sabbaloke
They call God, of every being be
Brahmâ bahûbhûtapati pajâna
Why prevail deceit, lies and
And he such inequity and
loka adhammena kimatthaksi
If the creator of the world
sace hi so issaro sabbaloke
they call God, of every being be
Brahmâ bahûbhûtapati pajâna
Then an evil master is he, (O
adhammiyo bhûtapatî Ariha
Knowing what's right did let
dhamme satî yo vidahi adhamma
[Translated by the Author]
The Buddha argues that the three most commonly given
attributes of God, viz. omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence towards
humanity cannot all be mutually compatible with the existential fact of dukkha.(21)Go
The Buddhist Attitude to
In considering the Buddhist view of man we are essentially
looking at the psychological postulates of Buddhism which has sometimes been
described as a psychological system. Given the meaning normally attached to
Psychology this is too narrow a description of psychology. Buddhism deals with
many other matters which are not normally included in psychology.
But there is a psychological dimension to Buddhism. This is
because of the great concern which Buddhism has with the mind and with the
training of the mind. In this sense Buddhism is unique amongst the world
religions. The first stanza of the well-known book of Buddhist aphorisms the Dhammapada
sums up very well the primacy that Buddhism gives to the mind:
monopubbagamâ dhammâ manosehâ manomayâ
manasâ ce paduhena bhâsati vâ karoti vâ Tato na dukkhamanvet cakka va
Mind is the forerunner of all states, mind-based and
mind-made are they
If one speaks or acts with an evil mind
Suffering results, just as the wagon wheel follows the ox
drawing it Similarly good thoughts lead to good actions.
Most religious systems decompose the individual into a body
and a soul. In this division the body includes what Buddhists (and modern
psychologists) would regard as the mind. Very often in this scheme the mind is
located in the heart. There is no location given for the soul. It is in fact a
mysterious entity created by God. While the physical body perishes at death the
soul goes either to Heaven or to Hell where it is reunited with a body (perhaps
similar to the old one) and continues its existence as one of sensuous conform
or of torment depending on the destination.
The Buddha dispensed with this scheme which was similar to
the system advocated in the old Vedas(22) . Instead the Buddha identified five
constituents of the empirical person, the first of which (rûpa) was
physical and the last four (collectively called nâma) were mind
components. These five components have been called Groups of existence or Five
Aggregates (pañcakkhandâ). These are:
1. Corporeality (rûpa). This is the physical
basis of existence. The five sense organs (eye, ear, nose, tongue and body) are
especially important in generating the various signals which are processed by
the mind (which is also recognised as an organ in is own right).
2. Feeling (vedanâ). Feelings are a
by-product of the contact between the organs of the physical body and the
external world. They are classified in various ways - wholesome and
unwholesome, gross and subtle, painful and pailful, etc.
3. Perception (saññâ). This is how the mind
processes the feelings that its sense organs transmit. No two individuals have
the same perception of the same feelings they may experience.
4. Formations (sankhârâ). The formations are
the deliberative acts of the individuals. it is often referred to as karmic
5. Consciousness (viññâna). This is the
condition of being aware of the environment in which the individual exists.
While corporeality is readily understood the other four
components are more subtle. Three of these, viz. feeling, perception and
consciousness, are known to modern psychological science, and the Buddhist
interpretation does not differ substantially from the scientific one. But the
concept of "formations" is not known to modern psychology. At the
same time there is nothing in conventional psychology that denies its
existence. Here the Buddhist view transcends that of the conventional analysis
of mental components. Go to Contents
Knowledge, Wisdom and
The Buddha traced the root cause of suffering to ignorance;
so the search for enlightenment is the supreme activity for the Buddhist (23). The activity proceeds at both
the intellectual and the intuitive levels. Pure intellectual understanding is
not sufficient, although it is often a very good starting point. When
enlightenment is attained pure intellectual understanding is transcended by an
intuitive grasp of the truths of the Universe.
If knowledge is the outcome of "intellectual"
activity, a person's fund of knowledge at any moment of time is made up of a
number of beliefs that he considers valid. The Buddha was quite clear on what
he considered legitimate to believe in. In his discourse to the Kâlâmas (a
people who were confused by the diversity of viewpoints they were confronted
with) the Buddha said:
"Come, O Kâlâmas, do not accept anything from mere
hearsay, or from what you have been told, or because it is mentioned in sacred
teachings, or because of logic merely, or because of its methods, or in
consideration of plausible reasoning, or by tolerating views based on
speculation, or because of its appearance of its possibility and because `your
teacher is venerable'. But when you, Kâlâmas, realize by yourself that views
are unwholesome, faulty, condemned by the wise, and that they lead to harm and
misery when practised and observed, then Kâlâmas, you should reject them"
This is the criterion of acceptability which the Buddha
wanted to apply to all claims, including his own. In Buddhism there cannot be
room for blind faith, and all propositions, religious or otherwise should be
subjected to analysis and practice. The reference to "mere logic" and
"plausible reasoning" in the quotation given serves as a caution
concerning some extreme forms of "rationalism" which argue that
"pure reason" is sufficient to establish the truth of metaphysical
propositions (like that of the existence of God). Deductive methods are useful,
but as they can only bring out what is already contained in the premises of the
argument, they cannot be used as a vehicle for the discovery of new
truths. Rightly has the Kâlâmasutta been termed the Buddhist charter of free
As a result of the Buddha's rational and tolerant attitude
early Buddhism never had concepts like heresy, apostasy and blasphemy (and this
is true of all subsequent Buddhist schools). In many theistic systems
imprisonment, torture and death have been inflicted on people who have refused
to bow before dogma.
In Buddhist epistemology three levels of understanding are
recognised. These are (using the Pali terminology): dii
("views"), ñâna ("science"), and bodhi
("wisdom"). Dii refers to views accepted more or less
dogmatically. Not all such beliefs are necessarily harmful, because some people
could be motivated to act wholesomely even though motivated by incorrect views.
But more usually such "views" can be extremely harmful(24) . The Buddha did not consider knowledge
consisting of dii to be useful in the longer term. Dii is often
contrasted with scientifically based knowledge, which results from thinking,
from learning and from mental development. This is usually terms ñâna or
paññâ. The acquisition of this kind of knowledge is useful, and is not
discouraged; but it alone will not lead to enlightenment. This is clearly seen
in the case of many eminent scientists, who have progressed far in the
acquisition of particular kinds of knowledge, but have not been able to outgrow
the dogmatic views inculcated in early childhood.
P>True enlightenment can arise out of the third kind of
knowledge, consisting of wisdom (bodhi) and insight (vipassanâ).
This results from the intuitive realisation of the Buddhist laws and truths
after the successful traverse of the Middle Path. The enlightenment process
involves the breaking of the ten fetters (sayojanâ) that bind people to
the phenomenal world. These are the five lower fetters of personality belief, sceptical
doubt, clinging to rite and ritual, sensuous craving and ill-will, and the five
higher fetters of craving for "fine material" existence, craving for
"immaterial existence", conceit, restlessness, and ignorance. (25)
Go to Contents
The Doctrines of Karma and
The Buddhist doctrine of kamma [karma] ("deeds",
"actions"), and the closely related doctrine of rebirth, are perhaps
the best known, and often the least understood, of Buddhist doctrines. The
matter is complicated by the fact that the other Indian religious traditions of
Hinduism and Jainism have their own theories of Karma and Reincarnation. It is
in fact the Hindu versions that are better known in the West. The Buddhist
theory of kamma (to give the Pali word) and rebirth are quite distinct
from their other Indian counterparts.
In Buddhism the law of kamma is the moral law of causation
- good actions give good results and vice versa. It is the quality of an act
which determines its consequences. But what determines the karmic quality of a
deed? In Hinduism it is the correct performance of a person's "duty",
especially his caste duties that counts. Early Buddhism, which recognised no
caste distinctions, evaluates the karmic quality of an act in terms of moral
and ethical criteria. In particular it is the mental factors which accompany
the commission of deed that determines its consequences or "fruits" (vipâka).
All negative kamma (i.e. those leading to bad consequences) arise from the
three roots of unwholesomeness. These are greed (lobha), aversion (dosa),
and delusion (moha). Accordingly good kammic results follow from deeds
that spring from generosity (caga), loving-kindness (mettâ) and
wisdom (vijjâ). The Buddha emphasised that it is the mental factors
involved, rather than the deeds themselves, that determine future consequences.
Thus the same deed committed with different mental factors will have different
consequences. Likewise purely accidental deeds may have neutral
consequences; however if the accident occurred because insufficient mindfulness
was exercised it could have adverse results for the person responsible for it.
The theory of kamma presupposes that individuals have
"free will". Everything that happens to an individual is not the
fruit of some past kamma. In fact the experiences that involve an individual
may be of three kinds: some are the result of past action, some are
deliberately committed free acts; and the remainder could be due to chance
factors operating in the environment. The doctrine of kamma is not a theory of
predestination of any kind. One common misunderstanding is not to distinguish
between the action and its results - between kamma and vipâka. It
must also be mentioned that the fruiting of an act may be postponed, and that
it is possible to reach enlightenment - the goal of the Buddha's path - before
all the previous kammas have yielded their results.
The Buddhist theory of rebirth asserts that the fruits of
some kamma may manifest themselves in "future lives". This brings us
to the Buddhist theory of rebirth. Similar concepts occur in other religious
systems - e.g. the Platonic theory of the "pre-existence of the soul"
and the Hindu-Jain theory of re-incarnation. Such reincarnation theory involves
the transmigration of a soul. In Buddhism, however, it is the unripened karmic
acts outstanding at the death of an individual which conditions a new birth. The
last moment of consciousness too is also a conditioning factor, but it is the
store of unripened kamma generated by volitional acts (the sankhâras) of
previous existences which generates the destiny of the new individual. A newly
born individual needs not only the genetic blueprint derived from the genes of
the natural parents, but also a kammic blueprint derived from the volitional
acts of a deceased person.
The question has been posed whether the new individual is
the same as the old individual whose kamma it has inherited. The Buddha's
answer to this question was somewhat enigmatic: "It is not the same, yet
it is not another" (na ca so, na ca añño). To understand the
Buddha's reply we have to investigate the criteria which establish personal
identity. Is the child the same as the adult it later becomes? In the Buddhist
sense we are making two observations at two points of time in a constantly
changing psycho-physical entity. For legal and conventional purposes some
arbitrary criteria are used, such as physical continuity over time, or the
retention of memory. These define only a conventional person. Just as it is a
conventional or "fictional" persons who lasts continuously from birth
to death, so it is just such a conventional person who persists from one life
to another. In the Buddhist view of rebirth the only links between two
successive lives is the karmic residue carried over and an element of
consciousness, called the re-linking consciousness: (paisandhi viññâna),
which momentarily links the two lives. In Buddhism there is no conception of a
transmigrating soul which inhabits successive material bodies until it unites
Buddhism uses the Pali term sasâra to denote the
"round of births" in various planes of existence governed by the law
of kamma. The acceptance of the validity of the hypothesis of sasâra is very
difficult for some people, while for others it is the most natural of
hypotheses. Some features of the observable world suggests it. In the
Culakammavibhanga Sutta the Buddha is asked: "What is the reason and the
cause for the inequality amongst human beings despite their being human?"
(the context making it clear that it is inequality at birth that is meant). The
Buddha answered: "Beings inherit their kamma, and it is kamma which divides
beings in terms of their inequality". The theistic hypothesis cannot give
a rational answer, except in terms of an iniquitous and unjust "God".
Some support for the theory of rebirth comes from reports
of recollections of past lives, whether spontaneously or under hypnosis, which
have been reported from all parts of the world. While many such reports may be
mistaken or even fraudulent, some are undoubtedly genuine. According to
Buddhism individuals can develop the power of "retrocognition" (i.e.
the ability to recall past lives), but the development of such supernormal
powers is usually the accompaniment of progress along the spiritual path of
enlightenment. IT may be possible that some karmic factors may predispose some
individuals towards such experiences. However parapsychological experimentation
is still in its early stages, and many people have no personal recollection of
their own previous lives. For such individuals the dogmatic acceptance of the
doctrines of kamma and rebirth is not expected.
The central tenets of Buddhism relate not to any abstract
theories about rebirth or karma but to the interpretation of human experience
which is within the capacity of every person to verify. This verification can
be undertaken, not in terms of an abstract cycle of lives, but also in terms of
the one life we are all familiar with. The Buddhist sasâra is to be seen
in every moment of existence, as well as the whole "cycle of births".
One would expect that in the Kâlâma Sutta, the discourse in
which the Buddha decries the acceptance of theories on the basis of authority
(which was quoted earlier), that he would address himself to the question of
belief in the doctrine of kamma and rebirth. This he does. Referring to the
"four-fold confidences" which the "noble person" (âriya
puggala), i.e. the person who follows the path of the Buddha, attains to,
the Buddha states:
" `If there is the other world and if there is the
fruit and result of good and bad deeds, then there is reason that I shall be
reborn into the state of bliss, the celestial world, on the dissolution of the
body, after death.' This is the first confidence that he attains.
" `If, however, there is no other world and if there
is no fruit and no result of good and bad deeds, then I shall myself lead he a
happy life, free from enmity, malice and suffering in this very life'. This is
the second confidence that he attains."
Thus even the extreme rationalist who would suspend
judgement on the truth of the sasâric hypothesis (i.e. the doctrines of karma
and rebirth) would find that the Buddha-Dhamma would not have lost its
rationale. He can aspire to the second confidence of the "noble
person" and make the one life that he is sure of, a happy one.(26)
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Buddhist Cosmology and
The Buddhist scriptures contain a cosmology of the Universe
which provide an interesting contrast to the cosmologies of other religions
(e.g. that of the Bible) and even the modern scientific cosmology (on which
there is no complete agreement). The cosmological claims in the Buddhist
scriptures should not be seen as an accurate description of the physical
universe, but as establishing the stage on which the great sasâric drama is
enacted. While considering this cosmology we may also consider the important
concept of Nibbâna which is the state of final release. The latter term
is better known in its Sanskrit version as "Nirvana". We shall use
the Pali term because the concept of Nirvana is also used in other Indian
religions notably Jainism.
We may first consider the planes of existence which form
the arenas for samsaric existence. The number of planes recognised depends on
the fineness with which they are classified. In the earlier more succinct
listing only 3 states of existence are mentioned. These are:
1. The sensuous realm (kâma lôka). This is
the physical world as accessible to be person who entirely on the physical
stimuli, without subjecting these stimuli to a refined degree of conscious
2. The fine-material realm (rpa lôka). This is the
same physical world as it is perceived by the active meditator.
3. The immaterial world (ârpa lôka). Is the physical
world as it is apprehended by the advanced meditator who realises the
"emptiness" of the phenomena that assail the senses of the ordinary
The last two realms of existence are meditative stages. In
the Buddhist literature there are other ways of classifying meditative states,
including some such as those that are induced by vipassanâ (insight)
meditation which differ is some details from the ârpa-lôka, but we need
not be concerned here; they are dealt with fully in manuals dealing with Buddhist
meditation. The two contemplative states of existence are subjective and would
not fall into what is considered by cosmology in the modern scientific sense.
Some consider the realm of Nibbâna as also falling into the
"meditative states", but this is regarded as something completely
outside all planes of existence.
The first realm, the kâma-lôka, clearly deals with
actual realms of existence, which is the only realm for those not subject to
some degree of enlightenment, and even in the case of the latter still provides
the physical dimension of existence. It is this realm that could be compared to
other cosmologies, whether held by scientists or religionists or ordinary
A word may be said about the Buddhist views on the
phenomenal worlds which constitute the arenas of sasâric existence, and of the
concept of nibbâna [Nirvâna] (the state of final release) which is the
antithesis of sasâra. These views contained in early Buddhist writings should
not be looked upon as dogmas whose acceptance is expected of Buddhists. Many of
them are beyond the capacity of unenlightened people to verify. Some of them
are burrowed from the prevailing cosmological views in the India of the
Buddha's time, and would have been used by the Buddha as illustrations to
clarify his own theories.
In the Pali literature five "planes of existence"
characterised in varying degrees of unsatisfactoriness are recognised. These
are (in increasing order of "suffering"): (1) the sphere of the plane
of the devas ("shining beings" often translated as
"gods"); (2) humans; (3) The spirit world; (4) the animal world; (5)
the lower world (duggati, niraya) often translated as "hells".
According to the law of kamma beings could be born into any of these planes of
existence, but the sojourn in any of these destinations is never permanent.
There is no necessary "progression" from the lower to the higher
levels. The cycle of rebirth in these various states of existence could be
terminated only on the achievement of nibbâna (which itself is not included in
the sasâric planes). Nibbâna, the final liberation, can only be achieved by
beings in the first two planes of existence, but more usually only by humans.
In some of the earliest strata in the Pali Canon only three
spheres of existence are recognised. These are: (1) the sensuous world (kâma
loka); (2) the fine material world (rûpa loka); and (3) the
immaterial world (ârûpa loka). Here the "sensuous world"
comprise all the realms of physical existence, and the other two correspond to
states of meditation. In the later literature (especially in the Abhidhamma),
the "planes of existence" are further subdivided, and some 32 planes
of existence are recognised. There are three ways of interpreting these
"planes of existence":
(1) They could be actual physical locations somewhere in
the physical universe.
(2) They could be forms of psycho-physical existence which
could be reached from any given physical location depending on mental
(3) Some states belong to the first type, and others to the
The earliest interpretation leans towards the second given
above (27), but the 32-fold classification
favoured by many modern exponents of Buddhism leans towards the third, which of
course implies that some states must correspond to the first. This raises the
question of Buddhist cosmology on which something needs to be said.
In terms of physical location the planes of existence could
be located anywhere in the Universe. That the Buddhist view of the physical
world is not much different from that of modern science is brought out clearly
in this quotation:
"As far as these suns and moons revolve shedding their
light in space, so far extends the thousand-fold universe. In it there are
thousands of suns, thousands of moons, thousands of inhabited worlds of varying
sorts. ... This is the thousand-fold minor world system (culanika lokadhâtu).
Thousands of times the size of the thousand-fold minor world system is the
twice-a-thousand Middling World System (Majjima lokadhâtu). Thousands of
times the size of the Middling World System is the thrice-a-thousand Great
Cosmos (mahâ lokadhâtu)."
With such a multiplicity of inhabited worlds it is possible
to interpret the planes of existence in realistic terms. But the interpretation
in terms of psychological and meditation states may be the more appropriate.
Heavens and hells are not specific locations with pleasant or unpleasant
experiences, but they could be experienced even in the human earthly form. (28)
The claim that "devas" exist should not be taken
as a concession to theism. Even though this term is commonly translated as
"gods" it does not imply the existence of divine authority. The devas
are a category of beings, subject to their own kammas formations and reverting
to human or other form after the expiry of their kammas, and quite incapable of
granting concessionary prayers addressed to them. In the Buddhist scheme all of
the leading deities of the Hindu pantheon, including Mahâ Brahmâ, the
"creator" of the universe in the Hindu scheme, are reduced to the
status of devas with only a transient existence in the deva-sphere. This
treatment of the powerful Gods of the Brahmanical system, to whom the
sacrifices and prayers of the system were directed, instead of being a support
of theism was a powerful critique of this system.(29)
As against the varied planes of sasâric existence the
Buddha postulated the existence of a state called nibbâna [nirvâna] which
serves as the summum bnonum of Buddhism. This, the most difficult of
Buddhist concepts, cannot really be grasped unless some considerable progress
has been made on the Buddhist path. It is usually described in negative terms.
It is the "Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed"; it is the
complete annihilation of all defilement; it is the complete destruction of the
five components of beings; it is a situation where no kammas are being formed
or previous kammas fruited; it is the extinction of the three roots of
unwholesome action (greed, aversion and delusion); it is the end of rebirth
itself. Two misconceptions of nirvâna may be mentioned - one, entertained by
the materialist, is that it implies nothingness; the other, entertained by the
theist, is that it involves merger with a higher entity. The Buddha answered
both questions "Does the arahant exist after death?" and "Does
the arahant not exist after death?" (where an arahant is a person who had
attained to the status of Nibbâna) in the negative. It is only the limitation
of our conceptualisation process that leads us to pose such questions.
Sometimes a distinction is made between "sasâric
Buddhism" and "nibbânic Buddhism" (30) . It is claimed that in the
former the aim is improvement in sasâra, while in the latter it is the
attainment of nibbâna. It is also claimed that the former should be the aim of
the lay Buddhist and the latter that of the Buddhist monk. However even in the
Buddha's day many monks did not attain nibbâna, while there was never advanced
the claim that a lay person could not attain to the nibbânic state. The true
position is that each person should proceed along the Buddhist path according
to his own capacities and priorities. The lay person is neither at a
disadvantage nor at an advantage relative to the monk (Bhikkhu) when it comes
to the question of progress along the path. The lay Buddhist and the Bhikkhu,
because of their differing life styles, will apply the Dhamma to different
areas. In particular the lay person can engage in activity aimed at the social
and economic upliftment of suffering humanity to a greater extent than the
Bhikkhu, while the latter will concentrate more on personal advancement through
the development of meditation and the keeping of the strict moral code expected
of the Bhikkhu Sangha.
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Buddhism and the Modern
The Buddha delivered the fundamental principles of Dhamma
some 2500 years ago. Initially it spread over most of Asia
in some form or other, but since then it has been declining until it now has
much less adherents than the other main religions (31) . There has also been many
changes in several other areas and it might to appropriate to consider the
Buddhist position with regard to some of them.
The Dhamma and Theistic Religion
Theism essentially means the service of an unseen God.
Since this God never addresses individuals directly, but through
"prophets" there has never been a shortage of the latter. And when
the rival prophets make irreconcilable and conflicting claims, and impose
mutually inconsistent rites, rituals, and codes of behaviour on their
followers, it is not difficult to see in these a potent cause of conflict.
Indeed a large part of the violence and crimes we see in history has been
caused by the attempt of the followers of one "prophet of God" to
impose dominion over those of another.
In the modern world the bulk of the people owe formal
allegiance to Christianity and Islam, religions which arose long after the
death of the Buddha. They are offshoots of another religion Judaism which has
remained confined to a small ethnic group. All three religions affirm the
existence of an all-powerful creator God . The Buddha had long ago repudiated
the notion of a supreme creator God. The Buddhist views of the subject of God
has already been dealt with in an earlier chapter.
Both Christianity and Islam have been fundamentally
intolerant religions dedicated to the goal of converting others, and
persecuting those of different faiths. In the last century or so Christianity
has been forced to give up some of its traditional methods of persecution, but
it has not abandoned its evangelical zeal. Islam continues very much in the way
it has even though conquest by the sword is becoming less easy. As a result of
these attitudes Buddhism has not been able to penetrate into those countries
where Christianity and Islam have established themselves historically.
Buddhists should seek to spread its message of religious
tolerance and the peaceful dialogue between religions. Whether it will succeed
in this has still to be seen.
The Dhamma and Materialism
The great development in the last century has been the rise
of materialism. Quite apart from philosophical system that have extolled
materialism there has also been a growth of materialist objectives in many
Philosophical materialism may not be very detrimental to
Buddhism because much of the argument which materialists have directed at
religion have been against theistic religion. However political movements which
have formally proclaimed materialism as their creed have acted against
religions, and Buddhism has suffered perhaps relatively more from such
What is unsatisfactory if philosophical materialism is that
it often denies the existence of absolute, objective moral standards. Buddhism
of course insists on the existence of such a moral code. The failure of
materialism is been mainly due to its lack of a universal norm of goodness, truth
The increase in the materialist motivation of people has
been seen even in people who would consider themselves as being religious.
Where this leads to an increase in greed it would reduce the ability of these
people to practice Buddhist values. However Buddhism is not against the growth
of material affluence provided that it results from the pursuit of right
livelihood. But much of the pressures that result from the scamble to reach the
top of the economic pile often lead to an abandonment of the principles of
The growing conflicts of the modern world arise from a
continuous proliferation of greed and craving. The ethical systems of both the
leading forms of theism and materialism encourage and endorse this tendency by
giving a license to humans to prevail over other forms of life, and encouraging
the "prudent" and ceaseless accumulation of material wealth as an
individual and social blessing. While such ethical systems may have given a
measure of material affluence to their followers, this material gain has been
at the cost of seriously heightening conflict within these societies as well as
in the world at large, even endangering the very future of mankind itself. The
Buddhist ethic, which involves the pursuit of a middle policy, by dampening the
acquisitive instinct, could offer mankind with a viable and more appropriate
The Dhamma and Science
The Dhamma is closely related to what is understood by
Science or Philosophy. Science investigates the nature of phenomena, and some
of the latest discoveries in the areas of the physical and the psychological
sciences are in conformity with Buddhist principles. However Science has a
self-imposed limitation - it has no procedure to move from the positive to the
normative. The Dhamma can make this transition, and thus has the ability to
transcend Science. It is also in this sense that the Dhamma can be considered a
Philosophy. However a substantial part of philosophy in the west since the time
of Aristotle has been concerned with metaphysical speculation. The Buddha
however looked on most such metaphysical speculations as being baseless and
unprofitable, and very often a cloak for ignorance.
An outstanding feature of the modern world has been the
triumph of science and the explosion of knowledge. These have posed a serious
challenge to theistic religion. Many of the dogmas that lie at the basis of
revelatory religions have been exploded by scientific developments. While one
section of theists have been busy in reinterpreting the old dogmas in
"metaphysical" terms (a hopeless task as it has proven to be), and
other group of "fundamentalists" have turned their backs on
scientific discovery and by boldly using modern methods of propaganda and
psychological conditioning have tried to reassert the old dogmas in all their
simplicity. These developments have raised the real possibility of a return to
the "dark ages". Materialism seems to have been better in coping with
scientific discovery, but has been totally helpless in evaluating correctly the
uses to which such discovery has to be put. Buddhism on the other hand has been
able to reconcile scientific discovery with its basic laws, and the path of
practice that Buddhism proclaims has provided a norm for the optimal use of
man's ever increasing knowledge. For the Buddhist there is no conflict between
the claims of science and religion (as there is for the theist), nor a quandary
as to how knowledge could be applied for the betterment of man (as it is for
both the materialist and the theist).
Buddhism and Humanism
The primary appeal of Buddhism was to the dignity of man,
not the glory of God. In this sense the Dhamma is primarily a humanistic
philosophy. In describing Buddhism as a humanism some care must be taken in
defining the latter term. Theists have defined humanism broadly as embracing
"any attitude exalting man's relationship to God, his free will, and his
superiority over nature". Such definitions leave out an essential quality
of humanism, viz. the primacy of man and the inconsequence of God. There is no
implication in Buddhism that human beings have some prior claim over other
forms of living beings, or for that matter over "nature", as is
implied in the definition of humanism quoted. Buddhists however hold that of
all forms of existence possible, the human form is the one most conducive to
deliverance. These aspects of Buddhist humanism make the Dhamma once again
Another aspect of Buddhist humanism is that it makes an
individual the master of his own destiny. On his death-bed when asked by his
followers as to whom they should follow when he was gone, the Buddha replied:
"Be ye a lamp (dîpa) unto yourselves; work out your own salvation
with diligence". The Pali word dîpa also means an island, and the
Buddha's final exhortation could also be rendered as "Be ye an island unto
yourselves..." etc. In either case the fundamental idea is that of
self-reliance rather than reliance on an external agency. The Dhamma, as could
be reconstructed from the Pali Canon remains the source of the Buddha-word. The
follower of the Buddha would need to understand this, if need be with the help
of a teacher but be alone has to practice it. In this respect it may be
mentioned that the Mahâyâna Schools of Buddhism have introduced the notion of
salvation by the grace of beings called "Bodhisattvas", i.e. beings
who have achieved enlightenment but postponed their entry into Nirvâna in order
to help others to get there through their grace. This notion is foreign to
early Buddhism or to present-day Theravada Buddhism.
The Relevance of Buddhism
In the modern world Buddhism has to contend with two broad
alternatives to itself. These are theism and materialism. Paradoxically the
Buddha had to contend with the very same ideologies in his own day. And now as
then Buddhism offers the better alternative for the realisation of the greater
happiness of all beings inhabiting the world (and not just humans alone).
The relevance of Buddhism for the contemporary era would
depend on its ability to meet the challenges posed by the contemporary world
better than the rival ideologies of theism and materialism and very often a
combination of the two.
The unbridled exploitation of the earth's resources, almost
amounting to a rape of these resources, has been another example of this greed.
Buddhism teaches that man should live in harmony with the Universe. We have
seen the extinction of many species of birds, animals and fish, and the threat
of extermination of many more, because of the dominance of theistic and
materialistic ethics, which have consistently refused to conceded the
"right to life" to non-human forms of existence. It is only a step
from this position to the exploitation of natural resources to the extent that
eco-systems have been destroyed beyond repair, and has put into question the
long-term possibility of survival.
The lack of tolerance of diverging viewpoints has been one
of the most potent causes of misery and war. Even though we would like to think
that the worst excesses of sectarian conflict are behind us, we have no real
ground to such optimism. The world meeds a measure of Buddhist tolerance. It
has been said that the flavour of the Dhamma is the flavour of freedom
(vimutti). The freedom that is meant here is primarily the freedom of the mind
unburdened by crippling dogma (be they of ego or of God); but such mental
freedom is the basis of all other freedom, even those of the more
"worldly" kind, like political, social or economic freedom. In a
world where freedom is constrained in many ways the liberating effect of the
Dhamma is sorely needed.
True freedom cannot be attained until the mind is set free.
The Dhamma actually provides a therapy for the freeing of the mind from mental
defilement. Modern society seems to have aggravated rather than lessened the need
for mental purification and calm. The pace of change has quickened, and
external pressure on individuals increased. A balanced mind, created by a true
understanding of the world and man's place in it, coupled with the practice of
the Buddha's path, could serve as a radical new therapy.
The importance of the Buddhist principle that a person
should be free to believe according to one's freely formed and informed
opinions, can hardly be overstated. The current practice of indoctrinating
children with the religious views of their parents is one that comes to mind.
Many religious organisations carry this process into formal schooling, and
reinforce it later by using the latest technology of the information
revolution. It then becomes a veritable "brain-washing" no less
insidious because it has the full approval of the establishment. The right of a
child to have its mind free of religious indoctrination until it can made a
decision on this vital matter in full maturity with all the information at its
command, is a right that is rarely mentioned, but one in which Buddhists can
take a lead.
Basic Buddhism is relevant for the problems of modern
society in several other ways. But it must be remembered that the traditional
practices of Buddhism in several of its schools, including to some extent in
the Theravâda tradition, departs considerably from the principles enunciated by
the Buddha. Here too what is needed is a return to the principles and practice
of basic Buddhism.
Appendix A: On Becoming a
It is possible for a person to live as a lay Buddhist
without any formal ceremony, declaration or rite. However the traditional
formality associated with identifying oneself as a Buddhist is to recite the
formula of Going to the Threefold Refuge (tisarana gamana) (32) This involves the formal utterance
of the following statements with full understanding as to their import:
buddham saranam gaccâmi
I go for refuge to the Buddha
dhammam saranam gaccâmi
I go for refuge to the Dhamma
sangam saranam gaccâmi
I go for refuge to the Sangha (33)
dutiyam pi buddham saranam
For the second time I go for
refuge to the Buddha
dutiyam pi dhammam saranam
For the second time I go for
refuge to the Dhamma
dutiyam pi sangam saranam
For the second time I go for
refuge to the Sangha
tatiyam pi buddham saranam
For the third time I go for
refuge in the Buddha
tatiyam pi dhammam saranam
For the third time I go for
refuge in the Dhamma.
tatiyam pi sangam saranam
For the third time I go for
refuge to the Sangha
This need not be a public utterance, but could be a self-administered
declaration. The person making this choice should have a clear understanding of
what the Dhamma of the Buddha is. This booklet is meant to provide such an
Buddhists repeat this formula periodically, as occasion
permits, in order to re-dedicate themselves to the Buddhist goal.
Appendix B: The Five
The Going for Refuge formula is very often followed by the
formula of Taking of the Five Precepts (pañca sîla). These precepts
constitute the basic ethical norms Buddhists hope to follow, i.e. forms the
layman's code of conduct. They define the ethical rules which a lay Buddhist
must follow in daily life. They are not commandments but "rules of
training" (sikkhâpada). It is customary to formally state these
rules either daily or on formal occasions but it is not the recitation of the
rules that matter but their observance. In many Buddhist countries the precepts
are "administered" formally by monks, but this is not necessary.
In the following we give the precept in Pali, its approximate
translation, and a few explanatory comments:
1. Non-Destruction of life. pânâtipâthâ veramanî sikkhâ pada samâdiyâmi (I
agree to follow the precept of abstaining from the taking of life). This
involves not contributing to the death of any living being. This means not only
the actual killing but also "causing to kill". However this rule does
not require one to be a vegetarian, only that meat consumed should not have
been "specially killed" for direct, personal consumption. Meat
purchased in the market does not come under the "specially killed"
2. Abstention from Theft. adinnâdânâ veramanî sikkhâ pada samâdiyâmi (I agree
to follow the precept of not taking that which is not given). Theft is
interpreted widely as taking that which is not given. It includes fraudulent
3. Avoidance of Sexual Misconduct. kâmesu miccâcârâ veramanî sikkhâ pada samâdiyâmi (I
agree to follow the precept of abstaining from sexual wrongdoing). Misconduct
here means not only overt acts of sexual violence like rape, but also adultery
in general. It must be remembered that Buddhism does not endorse any particular
kind of marriage, so this precept requires that sexual relations should be
confined to what is socially and legally acceptable as a marriage relationship.
4. Abstention from Wrong Speech. musâvâdâ veramanî sikkhâ pada samâdiyâmi (I agree
to follow the precept of abstaining from wrong speech). Wrong speech involves a
great many things apart from uttering falsehoods. It includes insulting speech,
malicious speech, even gossip.
5. Refraining from Intoxicants. surâmeraya majja pamâ dahânâ veramanî sikkhâ pada
samâdiyâmi (I agree to follow the precept
of abstaining from the liquor and spirits that cause inattention). This is
generally taken to mean avoiding alcohol, drugs, etc. which tend to
"confuse the mind". Some people interpret this precept not as an
absolute prohibition of alcohol (as in Islam) but only against intoxication and
inebriation through the use of alcohol or drugs.
While the five precepts are usually stated in negative
terms they have their positive counterparts (e.g. the principles of non-injury
and loving-kindness, honesty, sexual propriety, truthfulness and sobriety.
Appendix C: Higher Precepts
Some Buddhists observe the Eight Precepts once a month
(usually on the Full Moon Day, which has traditionally been a day of religious
observance amongst Buddhists). The three additional precepts are:
6. Abstaining from eating after mid-day
7. Abstaining from dancing, singing, music and shows
8. Abstaining from garlands, scents, cosmetics and
It will be seen that these three additional precepts do not
involve weighty moral principles like the 5 basic precepts. They are of use for
those who are desire some degree of withdrawal from lay life but are not
prepared to make a full-time commitment. A further step in this direction is to
take two additional precepts making 10 in all, which are often taken for a
longer time than the once-a-month practice of the eight precepts. These two
additional precepts are:
9. Abstaining from luxurious beds
10. Abstaining from accepting gold and silver
The third precept is also expanded to a rule enjoining
The extreme step along this line of renunciation is to
become a Buddhist monk (which involves following some 220 rules). This will
suit only a very few persons in any given Buddhist community. Since monks live
on the charity of lay Buddhists only a very small proportion of Buddhists can
For lay Buddhists the keeping of the five basic moral
precepts of Buddhism, is quite adequate. It must however be kept in mind that
keeping these precepts in their totality is quite demanding, but it is a goal
that lay Buddhists should aspire to.
Buddhists should also seek to engage in short periods of
meditation as a regular activity (e.g. 15 - 30 minutes every day). Chapter V
has given some information about the types of Theravâda meditation that are
available in the West.
Appendix D: The Three Gems
The formula for Going for Refuge involves the recognition
of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha as the three highest entities in
Buddhism often referred to as the Three Gems (tiratana) of Buddhism.
Salutation to the three gems could be turned into a formula
for meditation. Many Buddhists perform this meditation, either in their own
home, or in visits to Buddhist temples and monasteries. Three standard stanzas
is often used in this meditation. These stanzas enumerate the qualities of the
Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. The stanzas are given below, both in Pali
and in English. (It must be remembered that the English translation is only
approximate and each term could be discussed at length).
Appendix E: Main Buddhist
Tendencies in the West
In the West there are several modes of Buddhism. The main
distinction is still between Pali Buddhism and the Mahayana. This booklet is
written from the Pali Buddhist perspective which is closest to Basic Buddhism.
But it is always advisable to study other Buddhist tendencies which may contain
Even amongst those drawing inspiration from the Pali
sources there are several practical orientations, three main orientations may
1. Ethnic Buddhism.
This is practised by migrants from Asian countries. There is a heavy admixture
of cultural practices associated with Buddhism in the native countries and
these are imported along with the Dhamma. This stream of Buddhism gives great
emphasis to faith, worship, rite and ritual. This is seen in such practices as
the Buddha-pujâs (ritual offering of food and other things before
statues of the Buddha), worship of relics, chanting of suttas as magic
incantations, transference of merit to deceased persons, etc. Such Buddhism is
usually practised in Temples
set up according to Asian cultural archetypes.
2. Meditational Buddhism. This is the kind of meditation that we have called stylised meditation
in Chapter 5.
3. Rationalist-Humanist Buddhism. Here the Buddha's message is seen as being in conformity
with the scientific-humanistic spirit of the West. This sprit had a long
struggle to liberate itself from the anti-scientific attitude of Christianity
and its subordination of man to God. Until Buddhism arrived in the West there
was no framework within which these Western tendencies could be rationalised.
An important focus of this kind of Buddhism is its secularism and ethical
orientation. Monks are seen as Buddhist professionals who could devote their
time to the intellectual and moral uplift of people and to advance Buddhist
thinking into new areas not considered traditionally. But lay persons can play
an equally (or even more) active role. This kind of Buddhism is usually
practised in secular Buddhist Societies in the West and dispenses with the need
for temples and ritual.
Of these three tendencies Basic Buddhism is most at home
with the last mentioned, i.e. the ethico-rationalist-humanist tendency. But the
essence of Buddhism is that it is a middle path, not advocating unthinking
adherence to any particular extreme. While Basic Buddhism in the West should
emphasis the ethical, scientific, and humanistic aspects it should not neglect
anything that is good and useful in other tendencies. It is for the individual
groups to strike the right balance keeping in mind that the essence of Buddhism
is the search for enlightenment and with it the elimination of the roots of
Appendix F: Glossary of
absorptive meditative state
"Great Vehicle" School
extinction of defilements
round of births
School of Elders
The Pali Canon
Guide to Pronounciation.
Vowels and consonants are pronouned as in English with the
following exceptions. The vowel u is like `oo' in look. Long vowels are â, î
and û; e is intermediate; the other vowels are short. Consonants and are
dentals (tongue touching the teeth); d and t are palatals (tongue touching
palate). is nasalised and ñ is pronounced as in Spanish. c is like `ch' in
child. h after a constant aspirates that consonant.
earliest Indian Buddhist texts were maintained in the Pali language, and these
now constitute the authoritative texts of the Theravada school of Buddhism.
Subsequently Buddhist texts were composed in the Sanskrit language, these being
favoured by the non-Theravada schools of Buddhism. Most Buddhist terms thus
have a Pali and a Sanskrit form. In this work the Pali form will be used unless
the Sanskrit form is better known. A glossary of the principal Pali terms used
is given in Appendix F. The Sanskrit term dharma is also used to denote
Hindu and Jain scriptures. The Pali term dhamma is used only in
Theravada Buddhist teachings.
that "scientific view" does not necessarily mean the view of people
generally considered to be scientists. There is a tendency now current for
certain scientists to propagate metaphysical views which are contrary to the
methodology of classical science.
Buddhist has been killed, tortured, or imprisoned by another on account of his
interpretation of Buddhism. This tolerance has been extended to other religions
and philosophical system as well.
Common Era is the era now in general use. Dates before its commencement will be
referred to as B.C.E. (Before the Common Era. The terms B.C. (Before Christ)
and A.D. (Anno Domini) are specific to Christianity and should not be used to
refer to historical dates generally.
Hinayâna term is now used only by some unrepentant Mahayanists and by some Buddhist
scholars who want to refer to the early schools. There were many non-Mahayana
schools (such as Sarvâstivâda, Dharmaguptikas, etc) in the early centuries of
the Buddhist era. Their scriptures were composed in the Sanskrit language and
are now lost in their original form. Some of these were translated into Chinese
and Tibetan and some of it is still available. But these schools are distinctly
later than the Theravâda school. In fact they dissented in some areas from the
Theravâda position and composed their scriptures in Sanskrit translating the
parts of the Pali Canon they agreed with and introducing their own innovations.
is because some Theravadins regard not only the Pali Canon as authoritative but
also later works composed in the Pali Language like the Commentaries and work
of the great medieval scholar Buddhaghosa. We shall use the term Pali Buddhism
to refer to the Buddhism contained in the Pali Canon.
classic Mahayâna text extolling the position of the layman vis-a-vis the
Bhikkhu is the Vimalakirthinirdesha Sutra. Here a layman Vimalakirthi is seen
as expounding the Dhamma even to Sâriputta the famous arahant who in Theravâda
is considered a foremost exponent of the doctrine.
is considerable debate on the actual dates of the Buddha. It is generally
accepted that the Buddha's death occurred some 180 years before the coronation
of King Asoka. The traditional dates, based on the Sri Lankan chronicles dates
Asoka's coronation at 363 BCE and therefore the Buddha's death at 543 BCE,
which is 60 years earlier than the date given in the text. However modern
historians place the coronation at 303 BCE, and the dates given in the text are
based on this. There are some Western scholars that puts the dates about a
century later. However the evidence for this is not convincing, and we shall
use the dates given in the text as the approximate dates of the Buddha.
other cities where the Buddha is recorded to have spent the rains retreat
include Vesâli, Kosambî, Pârileyya, Nâlâ, Verañja, Kapitalvatthu, and Alâvi. He
also spent rains retreats in mountainous areas such as Câlika and Mankula.
early writers, mainly Christian, have cast doubt on the historicity of the
Buddha. They were no doubt trying to extend to the Buddha the doubts that have
been raised about the historicity of Jesus. It is well-known that contemporary
records are silent about Jesus, and some references have been shown to be later
forgeries. But while we have only details of a only a couple of years of the life
of Jesus there is much fuller information on the career of the Buddha. While it
may be possible to manufacture what would have occurred on a couple of years of
a person's life it is more difficult to do so where an extended period of time
other religious teachers (including Jesus and Mohammad) gave teachings which
were substantially similar to what others had given, validating them by
claiming that they had a special relationship with God. The charge that the
Buddha merely reformed the Vedic religion of his day cannot be maintained
because of the fundamental differences with the Vedic religion.
three gems or jewels are the Buddha (the discoverer), the Doctrine (the content
of the discovery) and the Sangha (the community of followers). A formal
affirmation of "going for refuge" is generally taken as a formal mark
of adherence to Buddhism.
so-called "proof" of the existence of God based on the first cause
runs as follows: everything must have a cause, therefore there must be a cause
for the origin of the world, and this cause is God. However if everything must
have a cause then God also must have a cause. The question immediately arises:
Who created God? Naturally theists are incapable of answering this question; in
effect they abandon their own premise that "everything" must have a
cause. This is not the case with the Buddhist theory or causation.
are usually detailed in the "precepts" of Buddhism. See the Appendix
B for the layman's code of ethics.
term jhâna is often translated as "trance", and might indicate
some kind of hypnotic state. While accomplished meditators may be able to reach
such psychic stages they are neither necessary nor sufficient to reach
comments will be confined to meditation related to the Pali Buddhism. In
Mahayana too some schools have laid a great deal of emphasis on it. The best
known of these are Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. We shall not be considering these
forms of Mahayana meditation here.
terms that could be used are "ritualised meditation" and even
"meditationism". None of these is suitable, including the one used in
the text. But at the same time there is a need to distinguish this practice
from what we shall refer to as Buddhist meditation.
contemporary teachers of these Asian meditation traditions in the West we may
mention, for the Sri Lankan tradition, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana in America;
for the Burmese tradition Goenka who has established centres in many countries;
and for the Thai tradition the pupils of Ajahn Chah and others who established
centres in the U.K. (Chithurst, Amarawati) and later in other countries. Of all
these the present writer considers Bhante Gunaratana to be the most suited to a
Western audience. He has written an excellent monograph on his technique Mindfulness
in Daily Practice.
"exclusive meditation" school of Theravâda belongs to the so-called
"forest tradition". This may suit the temperament of a small number
of recluses, but it is not the normal way to practice the Dhamma which could be
adequately done by lay persons living ordinary lives in the real world. The
personal example of the Buddha is very relevant here; he was no mere forest
recluse but lived and taught in the great urban environments of his day. The
real author of the forest tradition with its associated austerities (dhutângas)
was Devadatta, the Buddha's schismatic cousin, whose views were rejected by the
his work What the Buddha Really Taught. Maurice was a westerner who
developed a profound understanding of Buddhism, and the work mentioned here is
a very good resume of Buddhism for Westerners (and indeed others).
stock answer to this is that man's "free will" leads him to disobey
God and bring down disaster. But if man is complete creature of God then the
grant of free will too is the responsibility of God, as his
"omniscience" would have told him that free-will would be abused.
Hindu notion of the soul going through several incarnations inhabiting
different kinds of bodies until it finally reaches Moksha is actually a later
development in Hinduism and is not seen in the early Vedic texts.
Buddhism we can distinguish two meanings of the term "enlightenment".
The lower one is replacing ignorance (in the more prosaic sense) with
knowledge. The higher one is the supreme enlightenment associated with the
realisation of nibbâna through the extinction of craving and other roots
of unwholesome action. It is possible to be enlightened in the second sense
without being enlightened in the first sense. A supreme Buddha (sammâ-sambuddha)
of course is enlightened in both senses of the term. In this section the word
is used sometimes in the one and sometimes in the other sense.
views are called miccâ-dii ("wrong view") in contrast to which
the correct Dhamma view is called sammâ-dii ("right view"). In
the modern world the fundamentals of the mono-theistic religions, as well as
extreme forms of materialism would fall into the wrong category.
enlightenment resulting from the elimination of the fetters is the
enlightenment in the higher sense identified in the previous note. The Pali
terms for the 10 fetters and a brief description of them are as follows: (1) sakkâya-dii,
elimination of the ego-belief and realisation of the third law of anatta;
(2) vicikiccâ, development of total confidence in the accuracy of the
Buddhist analysis of reality; (3) sîlabbata-parâmâsa, not performing
ritual and rite and a method of spiritual activity; (4) kâma-râga,
liberating oneself from sensuality; (5) vyâpâda, elimination of
animosity towards others, (6) rûpa râga, not seeking rebirth material
realms; (7) arûpa-râga, not seeking rebirth in "immaterial"
realms; (8) mâna, elimination of conceit in oneself, (9) uddhacca,
developing full control over one's actions, and (10) avijjâ, the final
elimination of residual ignorance.
speaking the Buddha claims that knowledge of the working of kamma can only be
got by an enlightened person. Hence all opinions expressed on this subject will
have to be tentative.
is the interpretation which most Buddhists in the West will be comfortable
with. It takes the problem of cosmology out of the concern of the religionist
and places it on the lap of the scientist where it should properly rest. Also
the view that suffering is the creation of our own mind is well established in
some schools of modern psychology.
must be taken in interpreting Buddhism in terms of Buddhist cosmology. The dominant
theory amongst cosmologists today is the "Big Bang" theory. Against
this are ranged the theories of the oscillating universe (Hubble, James-Jeans)
and the steady-state universe (Hoyle). The support for the Big Bang theory
comes from those who are biased towards the Christian theory of creation (e.g.
Paul Davies). Buddhists should contest this interpretation of the Big Bang
theory which asserts a definite beginning to the universe, a proposition which
the Buddha contested.
best way of interpreting devas in modern terms is to view them as
extra-terrestrial beings. While this is a common view especially in science
fiction the current scientific views of the formation of life on the planet is
that it is not a unique process (as religions like Christianity would have it)
by a physical process that could go on in the billions of stellar systems which
comprise the universe. Furthermore life need follow the same evolutionary
pattern that has taken place on the earth. Thus beings in these other planets could
be considered devas, having a different physical appearance to humans.
The Buddhist theory of karma would add a further dimension that might give them
different psycho-physical powers to humans. But such speculations are not
really necessary because of the inconsequence of the devas to human
existence even if they exist at all.
terms are new but the idea is quite old. There is a tradition that the Buddha
spoke in terms of heavens and hells when preaching to ordinary people (who in
the Buddha's time would have had little education) and spoke in the more
abstract terminology of nibbâna only in discourse with more learned persons.
Encyclopaedia Britannica claims that about half of the world's 5 billion
people adhere to the main religions. Of this 40% are Christians and 20% are
Muslims. Buddhists number about 247 million (9.6%) almost all of them in Asia.
in this context means with respect to the Buddha the acceptance of the Buddha
as a supremely enlightened teacher, with respect to the Dhamma that the
teaching is fundamentally correct, and with respect to the Sangha the
recognition that one is a part of a wider community seeking to practice the
word "Sangha" has different connotations. In its original meaning,
and the one used in this formula, it means those persons who have made some
progress on the Buddhist path (at least to the level of sôtapanna or
"stream winner"). It is also used in two other meanings: (1) the body
of ordained persons and (2) the body of Buddhist disciples both monk and lay
irrespective of actual level of accomplishment.
Source: THE BUDDHIST SOCIETY OF QUEENSLAND, http://www.uq.net.au/slsoc/budsoc.html