For more than 2,500 years,
the religion we know today as Buddhism has been the primary
inspiration behind many successful civilizations, the source
of great cultural achievements and a lasting and meaningful
guide to the very purpose of life for millions of people.
Today, large numbers of men and women from diverse backgrounds
throughout our world are following the Teachings of the
Buddha. So who was the Buddha and what are His Teachings?
The man who was to become
the Buddha was born Siddhattha Gotama around 2,600 years
ago as a Prince of a small territory near what is now the
Indian-Nepalese border. Though he was raised in splendid
comfort, enjoying aristocratic status, no amount of material
pleasure could satisify the enquiring and philosophic nature
of the young man. At the age of 29 he left palace and family
to search for a deeper meaning in the secluded forests and
remote mountains of North-East India. He studied under the
wisest religious teachers and philosophers of his time,
learning all they had to offer, but he found it was not
enough. He then struggled alone with the path of self- mortification,
taking that practice to the extremes of asceticism, but
still to no avail.
at the age of 35, on the full moon night of May, he sat
beneath the branches of what is now known as the Bodhi Tree,
in a secluded grove by the banks of the river Neranjara,
and developed his mind in deep but luminous, tranquil meditation.
Using the extraordinary clarity of such a mind with its
sharp penetrative power generated by states of deep inner
stillness, he turned his attention to investigate upon the
hidden meanings of mind, universe and life. Thus he gained
the supreme Enlightenment experience and from that time
on he was known as the Buddha. His Enlightenment consisted
of the most profound and all-embracing insight into the
nature of mind and all phenomena. This Enlightenment was
not a revelation from some divine being, but a discovery
made by Himself and based on the deepest level of meditation
and the clearest experience of the mind. It meant that He
was no longer subject to craving, ill-will and delusion
but was free from their shackles, having attained the complete
ending of all forms of inner suffering and acquired unshakeable
Teachings of the Buddha
Having realized the goal of
Perfect Enlightenment, the Buddha spent the next 45 years
teaching a Path which, when diligently followed, will take
anyone regardless of race, class or gender to that same
Perfect Enlightenment. The Teachings about this Path are
called the Dhamma, literally meaning "the nature
of all things" or "the truth underlying existence".
It is beyond the scope of this pamphlet to present a thorough
description of all of these Teachings but the following
7 topics will give you an overview of what the Buddha taught:
The way of Inquiry
The Buddha warned strongly
against blind faith and encouraged the way of truthful inquiry.
In one of His best known sermons, the Kalama Sutta, the
Buddha pointed out the danger in fashioning one's beliefs
merely on the following grounds: on hearsay, on tradition,
because many others say it is so, on the authority of ancient
scriptures, on the word of a supernatural being, or out
of trust in one's teachers, elders, or priests. Instead
one maintains an open mind and thoroughly investigates one's
own experience of life. When one sees for oneself that a
particular view agrees with both experience and reason,
and leads to the happiness of one and all, then one should
accept that view and live up to it!
This principle, of course,
applies to the Buddha's own Teachings. They should be considered
and inquired into using the clarity of mind born of meditation.
Only when one sees these Teachings for oneself in the experience
of insight, do these Teachings become one's Truth and give
The traveller on the way of
inquiry needs the practice of tolerance. Tolerance does
not mean that one embraces every idea or view but means
one doesn't get angry at what one can't accept.
Further along the journey,
what one once disagreed with might later be seen to be true.
So in the spirit of tolerant inquiry, here are some more
of the basic Teachings as the Buddha gave them.
The Four Noble Truths
The main Teaching of the Buddha
focuses not on philosophical speculations about a Creator
God or the origin of the universe, nor on a heaven world
ever after. The Teaching, instead, is centred on the down-to-
earth reality of human suffering and the urgent need to
find lasting relief from all forms of discontent. The Buddha
gave the simile of a man shot by a poison-tipped arrow who,
before he would call a doctor to treat him, demanded to
know first who shot the arrow and where the arrow was made
and of what and by whom and when and where ... this foolish
man would surely die before his questions could be well
answered. In the same way, the Buddha said, the urgent need
of our existence is to find lasting relief from recurrent
suffering which robs us of happiness and leaves us in strife.
are of secondary importance and, anyway, they are best left
until after one has well trained the mind in meditation
to the stage where one has the ability to examine the matter
clearly and find the Truth for oneself.
Thus, the central Teaching
of the Buddha, around which all other teachings revolve
is the Four Noble Truths:
1. That all forms of being,
human and otherwise, are afflicted with suffering.
2. That the cause of this suffering is Craving, born of
the illusion of a soul (see below, note 7).
3. That this suffering has a lasting end in the Experience
of Enlightenment (Nibbana) which is the complete letting
go of the illusion of soul and all consequent desire and
4. That this peaceful and blissful Enlightenment is achieved
through a gradual training, a Path which is called the
Middle Way or the Eightfold Path.
It would be mistaken to label
this Teaching as 'pessimistic' on the grounds that
it begins by centring on suffering. Rather, Buddhism is
'realistic' in that it unflinchingly faces up to
the truth of life's many sufferings and it is 'optimistic'
in that it shows a final end of the problem of suffering
- Nibbana, Enlightenment in this very life! Those
who have achieved this ultimate peace are the inspiring
examples who demonstrate once and for all that Buddhism
is far from pessimistic, but it is a Path to true Happiness.
The Middle Way or Eightfold Path
The Way to end all suffering
is called the Middle Way because it avoids the two extremes
of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. Only when
the body is in reasonable comfort but not over-indulged
has the mind the clarity and strength to meditate deeply
and discover the Truth. This Middle Way consists of the
diligent cultivation of Virtue, Meditation and Wisdom, which
is explained in more detail as the Noble Eightfold Path.
1. Right Understanding
2. Right Thought
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration
Right Speech, Action and Livelihood
constitute the training in Virtue or Morality. For a practising
Buddhist it consists of maintaining the five Buddhist Precepts,
which are to refrain from:
1. Deliberately causing
the death of any living being;
2. Intentionally taking for one's own the property of
3. Sexual misconduct, in particular adultery;
4. Lying and breaking promises;
5. Drinking alcohol or taking stupefying drugs which lead
to lack of mindfulness.
Right Effort, Mindfulness
and Concentration refer to the practice of Meditation, which
purifies the mind through the experience of blissful states
of inner stillness and empowers the mind to penetrate the
meaning of life through profound moments of insight.
Right Understanding and Thought
are the manifestation of Buddha-Wisdom which ends all suffering,
transforms the personality and produces unshakeable serenity
and tireless compassion.
According to the Buddha, without
perfecting the practice of Virtue it is impossible to perfect
Meditation, and without perfecting Meditation it is impossible
to arrive at Enlightenment Wisdom. Thus the Buddhist Path
is a Gradual Path, a Middle Way consisting of Virtue,
Meditation and Wisdom as explained in the Noble Eightfold
Path leading to happiness and liberation.
Kamma means 'action'. The
Law of Kamma means that there are inescapable results of
our actions. There are deeds of body, speech or mind that
lead to others' harm, one's own harm, or to the harm of
both. Such deeds are called bad (or 'unwholesome') kamma.
They are usually motivated by greed, hatred or delusion.
Because they bring painful results, they should not be done.
There are also deeds of body,
speech or mind that lead to others' well being, one's own
well being, or to the well being of both. Such deeds are
called good (or 'wholesome') kamma. They are usually motivated
by generosity, compassion or wisdom. Because they bring
happy results, they should be done as often as possible.
Thus much of what one experiences
is the result of one's own previous kamma. When misfortune
occurs, instead of blaming someone else, one can look for
any fault in one's own past conduct. If a fault is found,
the experience of its consequences will make one more careful
in the future. When happiness occurs, instead of taking
it for granted, one can look to see if it is the result
of good kamma. If so, the experience of its pleasant results
will encourage more good kamma in the future.
The Buddha pointed out that
no being whatsoever, divine or otherwise, has any power
to stop the consequences of good and bad kamma. The fact
that one reaps just what one sows gives to the Buddhist
a greater incentive to avoid all forms of bad kamma while
doing as much good kamma as possible.
Though one cannot escape the
results of bad kamma, one can lessen their effect. A spoon
of salt mixed in a glass of pure water makes the whole very
salty, whereas the same spoon of salt mixed in a freshwater
lake hardly changes the taste of the water. Similarly, the
result of a bad kamma in a person habitually doing only
a small amount of good kamma is painful indeed, whereas
the result of the same bad kamma in a person habitually
doing a great deal of good kamma is only mildly felt.
This natural Law of Kamma
becomes the force behind, and reason for, the practice of
morality and compassion in our society.
The Buddha remembered clearly
many of His past lives. Even today, many Buddhist monks,
nuns and others also remember their past lives. Such a strong
memory is a result of deep meditation. For those who remember
their past life, Rebirth is an established fact which puts
this life in a meaningful perspective.
The Law of Kamma can only
be understood in the framework of many lifetimes, because
it sometimes takes this long for Kamma to bear its fruit.
Thus Kamma and Rebirth offer a plausible explanation to
the obvious inequalities of birth; why some are born into
great wealth whereas others are born into pathetic poverty;
why some children enter this world healthy and full-limbed
whereas others enter deformed and diseased... The fruits
of bad Kamma are not regarded as a punishment for evil deeds
but as lessons from which to learn, for example, how much
better to learn about the need for generosity than to be
reborn among the poor!
Rebirth takes place not only
within this human realm. The Buddha pointed out that the
realm of human beings is but one among many. There are many
separate heavenly realms and grim lower realms, too, realms
of the animals and realms of the ghosts. Not only can human
beings go to any of these realms in the next life, but we
can come from any of these realms into our present life.
This explains a common objection against Rebirth that argues
"How can there be Rebirth when there are 10 times as
many people alive today than there were 50 years ago?"
The answer is that people alive today have come from many
Understanding that we can
come and go between these different realms, gives us more
respect and compassion for the beings in these realms. It
is unlikely, for example, that one would exploit animals
when one has seen the link of Rebirth that connects them
No Creator God
Buddha pointed out that no God or priest nor any other kind
of being has the power to interfere in the working out of
someone else's Kamma. Buddhism, therefore, teaches the individual
to take full responsibility for themselves. For example,
if you want to be wealthy then be trustworthy, diligent
and frugal, or if you want to live in a heaven realm then
always be kind to others. There is no God to ask favours
from, or to put it another way, there is no corruption possible
in the workings of Kamma.
believe that a Supreme Being created the universe? Buddhists
would first ask which universe do you mean? This present
universe, from the moment of the 'big bang' up to now, is
but one among countless millions in Buddhist cosmology.
The Buddha gave an estimate of the age of a single universe-cycle
of around 37,000 million years which is quite plausible
when compared to modern astrophysics. After one universe-
cycle ends another begins, again and again, according to
impersonal law. A Creator God is redundant in this scheme.
is a Supreme Saviour, according to the Buddha, because whether
God, human, animal or whatever, all are subject to the Law
of Kamma. Even the Buddha had no power to save. He could
only point out the Truth so that the wise could see it for
themselves. Everyone must take responsibility for their
own future well being, and it is dangerous to give that
responsibility to another.
The Illusion of Soul
The Buddha taught that there
is no soul, no essential and permanent core to a living
being. Instead, that which we call a 'living being', human
or other, can be seen to be but a temporary coming together
of many activities and parts - when complete it is called
a 'living being', but after the parts separate and the activities
cease it is not called a 'living being' anymore. Like an
advanced computer assembled of many parts and activities,
only when it is complete and performs coherent tasks is
it called a 'computer', but after the parts are disconnected
and the activities cease it is no longer called a 'computer'.
No essential permanent core can be found which we can truly
call 'the computer', just so, no essential permanent core
can be found which we can call 'the soul'.
Yet Rebirth still occurs without
a soul. Consider this simile: on a Buddhist shrine one candle,
burnt low, is about to expire. A monk takes a new candle
and lights it from the old. The old candle dies, the new
candle burns bright. What went across from the old candle
to the new? There was a causal link but no thing went across!
In the same way, there was a causal link between your previous
life and your present life, but no soul has gone across.
Indeed, the illusion of a
soul is said by the Buddha to be the root cause of all human
suffering. The illusion of 'soul' manifests as the 'Ego'.
The natural unstoppable function of the Ego is to control.
Big Egos want to control the world, average Egos try to
control their immediate surroundings of home, family and
workplace, and almost all Egos strive to control what they
take to be their own body and mind. Such control manifests
as desire and aversion, it results in a lack of both inner
peace and outer harmony. It is this Ego that seeks to acquire
possessions, manipulate others and exploit the environment.
Its aim is its own happiness but it invariably produces
suffering. It craves for satisfaction but it experiences
discontent. Such deep- rooted suffering cannot come to an
end until one sees, through deep and powerful meditation,
that the idea 'me and mine' is no more than a mirage.
These seven topics are a sample
of what the Buddha taught. Now, to complete this brief sketch
of Buddhism, let's look at how these Teachings are practised
One could say that there is
only one type of Buddhism and that is the huge collection
of Teachings that were spoken by the Buddha. The original
Teachings are found in the 'Pali Canon', the ancient scripture
of Theravada Buddhism, which is widely accepted
as the oldest reliable record of the Buddha's words. Theravada
Buddhism is the dominant religion in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand,
Cambodia and Laos.
Between 100 to 200 years after
the passing away of the Buddha, the Sangha (the monastic
community) split over the political question of 'Who runs
the Sangha?' A controversy over some monastic rules was
decided by a committee of Arahats (fully Enlightened monks
or nuns) against the views of the majority of monks. The
disgruntled majority resented what they saw as the excessive
influence of the small number of Arahats in monastery affairs.
From then on, over a period of several decades, the disaffected
majority partially succeeded in lowering the exalted status
of the Arahat and raising in its place the ideal of the
Bodhisattva (an unenlightened being training to be a Buddha).
Previously unknown scriptures, supposedly spoken by the
Buddha and hidden in the dragon world, then appeared giving
a philosophical justification for the superiority of the
Bodhisattva over the allegedly 'selfish' Arahat. This group
of monks and nuns were first known as the 'Maha Sangha',
meaning 'the great (part) of the monastic community'. Later,
after impressive development, they called themselves the
'Mahayana', the 'Greater Vehicle'
while quite disparagingly calling the older Theravada 'Hinayana',
the 'Inferior Vehicle'. Mahayana still retains most of the
original teachings of the Buddha (in the Chinese scriptures
these are known as the 'Agama' and in the Tibetan version
as the 'Kangyur') but these core teachings were mostly overwhelmed
by layers of expansive interpretations and wholly new ideas.
The Mahayana of China, still vibrant in Taiwan, reflects
an earlier phase of this development, the Mahayana of Vietnam,
Korea and Japan (mostly Zen) is a later development, and
the Mahayana of Tibet and Mongolia is a much later development
relevance to the world today
Today, Buddhism continues
to gain ever wider acceptance in many lands far beyond its
original home. Here in Australia, many Australians through
their own careful choice are adopting Buddhism's peaceful,
compassionate and responsible ways.
The Buddhist Teaching of the
Law of Kamma offers our society a just and incorruptible
foundation and reason for the practice of a moral life.
It is easy to see how a wider embracing of the Law of Kamma
would lead any country towards a stronger, more caring and
The Teaching of Rebirth places
this present short lifetime of ours in a broader perspective,
giving more meaning to the vital events of birth and death.
The understanding of Rebirth removes so much of the tragedy
and grief surrounding death and turns one's attention to
the quality of a lifetime, rather than its mere length.
From the very beginning, the
practice of meditation has been at the very heart of the
Buddhist Way. Today, meditation grows increasingly popular
as the proven benefits to both mental and physical well
being become more widely known. When stress is shown to
be such a major cause of human suffering, the quieting practice
of meditation becomes ever more valued.
Today's world is too small
and vulnerable to live angry and alone, thus the need for
tolerance, love and compassion is so very important. These
qualities of mind, essential for happiness are formally
developed in Buddhist meditation and then diligently put
into practice in everyday life.
Forgiveness and gentle tolerance,
harmlessness and peaceful compassion are well known trademarks
of Buddhism, they are given freely and broadly to all kinds
of beings, including animals of course, and also, most importantly,
to oneself. There is no place for dwelling in guilt or self-hatred
in Buddhism, not even a place for feeling guilty about feeling
Teachings and practices such
as these are what bring about qualities of gentle kindness
and unshakeable serenity, identified with the Buddhist religion
for 25 centuries and sorely needed in today's world. In
all its long history, no war has ever been fought in the
name of Buddhism. It is this peace and this tolerance, growing
out of a profound yet reasonable philosophy, which makes
Buddhism so vitally relevant to today's world.
Society of Western Australia
Dhammaloka Buddhist Centre
18 Nanson Way
Nollamara. WA 6061
Tel. (61-8) 9345 1711