August 31, 2009
(This is not my Dhamma Diary entry.)
I am the Buddhist rep’ on the Warwick District Faiths Forum and I was recently asked by the Secretary to provide an introduction to Buddhism which will feature in an ‘Introduction to Faiths’ booklet. I was limited to 2 A5 sheets. Here it is. If you’d like to print it off or copy it feel free, but please acknowledge the source.
Writing this introduction has made me think it might actually be a useful thing to have Buddhism presented with the other religions. I’ve had my doubts: seeing that they all have been the cause of inestimable trouble and have such a bad name wouldn’t it be better to keep Buddhism well clear of them? Possibly. But being up there on the same platform, Buddhism provides a singular and sorely needed voice of reason, free-inquiry and truth amongst all the primitive, superstitious and mind-shrinking nonsense espoused by the others.
As a Buddhist on these multi-faith things one feels very much like the cat among the pigeons. I hope they all read the part on Buddhism in this leaflet, especially the words on free-inquiry, God, the soul and creation! (That is if the editor doesn’t omit those juicy bits…)
Although I’m critical of the other religions I must say it strikes me that many people on this Forum are very well-intentioned, genuine, caring and friendly people. It’s better to be friends than to fight, though of course whilst acknowledging our differences.
I finished the piece with a sentence on harmlessness, loving-kindness and compassion as they are so badly needed in this world. If everyone could just stop harming each other wouldn’t things be so much better? To love all beings is a tall order, but to stop harming is less so. So let’s stop harming and maybe love will come afterwards.
Buddhism is what we call the original teachings and discipline established by the Buddha, as well as the family of separate but related movements that have grown out of those early beginnings and spread in a vast and complex diversity of forms throughout the world. They all have at their core the Buddha’s preoccupation with suffering and its end.
The man who was to become the Buddha was born Prince Siddhattha Gotama in India over 2500 years ago. Brought up in royal splendour it wasn’t long before an awareness of the inevitability of old age, sickness and death took root in his mind and lead to him abandoning his palaces in search of truth.
One evening, at the age of thirty-five, after six years of searching, he seated himself beneath a great tree and focused his mind on his breathing. When his mind had reached a sufficiently deep state of concentration and clarity he focused on investigating the cause of suffering. As the dawn drew near he penetrated to the fundamental level of reality and came to know suffering’s cause and thereby its end. It is from this point that we know him as the Buddha – the ‘One who Knows’, the ‘Awakened One’.
For the next forty-five years until his passing he wandered the dusty roads of Northern India teaching people how they too could be free from suffering.
The Four Noble Truths
At the heart of the Buddha’s teachings are the Four Noble Truths, and it is from these that all of his other teachings stem.
1. Suffering; Unsatisfactoriness
Life is inherently unsatisfactory and experienced as suffering: we are subject to birth, aging, sickness and death. Even the happiness and pleasant experiences are unsatisfactory since they all must pass.
2. The Cause of Suffering
Craving, according to the Buddha, is the root of suffering. We crave for pleasure, to exist, to not exist and for things to be other than they are. With craving present in our minds we continually live at odds with the true nature of things.
3. The End of Suffering
This is the goal of Buddhist practice. The Buddha used the term ‘Nibbana’ (Nirvana) which literally means ‘extinguishing’, i.e. the extinguishing of the fire of craving. Nibbana is freedom from all greed, hatred and delusion. Nibbana is neither annihilation, nor an eternal heaven.
4. The Path Leading to the End of Suffering
This is the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Acton, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. In other words, the path of Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom.
Blind faith is anathema to Buddhism. The Buddha cautioned his followers against merely believing his words, instead encouraging them to actively probe and investigate. Scriptures may point the way to truth but it is down to each individual to realise it for his or herself through direct knowledge.
God, the Soul and Creation
Buddhism is a non-theistic religion that does not recognise a creator God. The Buddha held that such a belief is a deluded one. In contrast to relying on forces outside oneself, Buddhist teaching emphasises personal responsibility.
Regarding the origin of things, he taught that no beginning can be found, and that to search for such is the way to madness.
Central to the Buddha’s teaching is the doctrine of ‘anatta’ – ‘no-self’, ‘no-soul’, which states that beings are an ever-changing, evolving combination of mind and matter, within which no permanent entity or essence abides.
Karma and Rebirth
Karma means action, the results of which depend upon the intention behind the action. Actions that are rooted in greed, hatred and delusion bring about suffering; whereas those rooted in generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom bring happiness. The Law of Karma highlights the fact that we alone are responsible for our own happiness and suffering. Rebirth is conditioned by the actions that we perform through our life.
Loving-Kindness and Compassion
The Buddha taught that we should try at all times to be harmless, and to act out of loving-kindness and compassion for ourselves and all beings everywhere.
August 20, 2009
We monks are half way through the annual three month ‘Rains Retreat’ (Vassa). As I’ve said before we often use this period to undertake special practices, focus more intently on our formal meditation, and develop certain skills in a concentrated and systematic manner.
Over the past few days I have been honing my throwing snotty tissues into the bin abilities whilst lying in bed. I have the flu, possibly of the swine variety. So, bye for now. Time for another three-pointer.
(All being well, I’ll get something up in the next few days.)
And with the Blessed One’s attainment of final Nibbana, some bhikkhus who were not without [passion] stretched out there arms and wept, and they fell down and rolled back and forth: “So soon has the Blessed One attained Final Nibbana! So soon the Sublime One attained Final Nibbana! So soon the Eye has vanished from the world!” But those who were free from [passion], mindful and fully aware, said: “Formations are impermanent. How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed and bound to fall should not fall? That is not possible.”
Then the [arahant] Venerable Anuruddha addressed the bhikkhus: “Enough, friends, do not sorrow, do not lament. Has it not already been declared by the Blessed One that there is separation and parting and division from all that is dear and beloved? How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed and bound to fall should not fall? That is not possible.” (D. 16*)
Several years ago someone told me about a certain blog post written by a fairly prominent English Buddhist teacher and author. In this particular piece he related how he had been sifting through the Pali Canon when he discovered something about the state of an arahant (an enlightened being): they don’t grieve.
“Oh,” he thought. “I don’t want that kind of enlightenment.”
The above statement comes from somebody whose grasp of the Dhamma is seriously weak. What kind of enlightenment does he want? Enlightenment with a sprinkling of grief? How about a squeeze of pain and despair for good measure? Surely you wouldn’t want enlightenment without some mental pain and despair?
It’s not as if just when you’re about to attain enlightenment you go and take your seat in a restaurant and have a waiter hand you the enlightenment menu. “Now, Sir, what kind of enlightenment will you be having?” “Well, gosh. There’s so much to choose from… Let me see…. There’s enlightenment with a side serving of pain. There’s enlightenment with grief. There’s enlightenment with despair. And then there’s the full works: enlightenment à la birth, aging, sickness and death. I think I’ll have enlightenment with grief.” “Very good, Sir. Enlightenment with grief it is.”
What is the purpose of Buddhism? To be free from dukkha. What is dukkha? To find this out we can refer to the Buddha’s stock definition of dukkha:
“This is the Noble Truth of Dukkha: birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha. Association with the loathed is dukkha; dissociation from the pleasant is dukkha. Not to get what one wants is dukkha. In short, the five aggregates affected by clinging are dukkha.”
What is the Buddha describing here? Life! That life is, by its very nature, bound up with suffering. The purpose of Buddhism is to be free from dukkha; to abide in a state of perfect wisdom that is beyond these experiences, where these experiences do not occur. That, of course, is the peace and freedom of Nibbana. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Better than all this birth, death and grief business. No?
So the teachings of the Buddha are very clear. They start with the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the Path. And from there the various more refined expressions of the Truths open out. The Dhamma serves as a clear guide to a specific goal.
Which brings us to the main point here: the need to study the Dhamma; to know what the Buddha taught. For the practice of Buddhism to lead us to the goal it must be supported by, as Bhikkhu Bodhi says, ‘a clear understanding of the basic principles of the teaching’. To learn the Dhamma we don’t need to study the whole Pali Canon though; too much reading and our minds will be so full of words it will be difficult to meditate. In the Forest Tradition we say ‘study a little, practise a lot, realise everything’. But that little bit of studying goes a very long way. Without it, we are like someone climbing Everest without a compass or a map.
As well as a compass and a map, we could say that following the Dhamma is like following a recipe. If we are to bake a delicious cake then we must follow the instructions carefully and closely. If we don’t, then all sorts of things can go wrong: if we forget the yeast then it won’t rise; forget the sugar and it won’t be sweet; forget to oil the tray and it’ll get stuck; add too much salt and it’ll be inedible, etc. etc.
Practising the Dhamma is the same. We need to read the instructions, get to know the recipe, and then follow it carefully. If we don’t then the cake won’t rise.
It goes without saying that we should know the Four Noble Truths off by heart. The same can be said for the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. And we should be familiar with the threefold division of the Path: morality, meditation, and wisdom. Looking further into the Buddha’s teachings we will find that he defined each of the parts of the Path in short, concise and easy to remember terms. I won’t list them now, but it would be sensible for people to know them.
The teaching on Kamma should also be studied. Many people have confused ideas about this quite logical, sensible and direct teaching. Some equate it with fate. Others refer to it simply as the law of cause and effect. The first is wrong, the second is misleading. Of course Kamma is an expression of the law of cause and effect, but it is also much more than that: The term kamma literally means ‘action’. But more importantly it means ‘intentional action’. “Intention is Kamma”, said the Buddha. “Having willed, one acts by way of body, speech and mind.” (AN 6.63). It is these intentional actions that shape our future and lead to rebirth.
The Three Characteristics, too, are unique teachings of the Buddha that we should learn and cherish. The third of these perhaps requires the most attention (and protection): anatta – the teaching that there is no permanent soul of self, or any abiding entity in anything.
And Nibbana. Often, and understandably, we shy away from defining it. After all, what could we possibly know about it? But the Buddha spoke of it in quite concrete and concise terms that we can remember and bring up if we are asked about it. Nibbana is freedom from craving. Nibbana is freedom from greed, hatred and delusion. Nibbana is liberation from the five aggregates. Nibbana is freedom from dukkha.
Crucially, we should know what Nibbana is not. Nibbana cannot be said to be eternal: eternity being in the realm of time; Nibbana is beyond time. Nor is it annihilation. It is not a physical place. It is certainly not a fairy tale land of enlightened beings and their castles… (I once heard of a highly respected teacher in the East who taught that when an enlightened being dies he or she goes to Nibbana. And there they live in a castle. And the size of that castle depends on their accumulated paramis (perfections); those with the most paramis having the biggest castles… (I wonder if you get double glazing if your paramis are really strong!) This view could have been avoided if he’d have learnt some basic Dhamma.)
The above list has by no means exhausted what is to be learnt, but it’s a start.
So where do we look to study the teachings of the Buddha? Usually in books. But there are sooo many books on Buddhism. And unfortunately 99.9% of them tell you more about the author than the Dhamma. And not a few are as stuffed with errors as a bean-bag is with beans.
And then there’s the double-edged sword that is the Internet. I read a quote by the philosopher AC Grayling the other day:
“The democracy of blogging and tweeting is absolutely terrific in one way. It is also the most effective producer of rubbish and insult and falsehood we have yet invented.”
This can be extended to the web in general: there’s certainly no shortage of rubbish and insult and falsehood written about Buddhism in the great ether. Therefore one must be very selective. A newcomer trawling the web for information on Buddhism can be likened to someone reaching blindly down into a barrel of water teeming with piranhas but containing only a few pearls.
Good books are hard to come by
One day, when I was a lay-man, I strolled into a flashy Waterstone’s book shop, headed to the appropriate sections, grabbed about six colourful Buddhistish books, did the business at the till, and sauntered out. Four of those books I would not now recommend. That leaves one that was all right and one that was very good. The latter was ‘What the Buddha Taught‘, by Walpola Rahula.
It was a revelation. It’s one of those books that, when reading, you frequently pause after a sentence, lift your head from the page, slowly close your eyes, breathe in deeply, and savour the moment as a piece of the jigsaw sinks into place. Then you open your eyes again, pause, and lower your head for more. Leaving the scriptures aside, this book sets the benchmark as a relatively pure expression of the Dhamma, simply because it stays so close to the scriptures, with little or no interference from the author’s opinions. It is a reasonably short, concise, but also thorough exposition of the essential teachings of the Buddha, laden with quotes to boot. And it is well written. To read a book such as this is highly advisable.
However, if we really want to know what the Buddha taught then there’s only one place to look: the Tipitika – the Pali Canon (and also the Mahayana equivalent) – the oldest record of the Buddha’s actual words (Buddhavacana). Reading books about Buddhism, as opposed to the Buddhavacana, is similar to riding a bike with stabilisers. At first, it might be sensible; we become accustomed to the act of riding. But pretty soon those stabilisers are going to be a hindrance and so they have to go. Then we can experience the act of riding in its pure form. So too, once we have a reasonable grasp of the Dhamma through reading about Buddhism we shouldn’t hesitate to plunge into the vast treasure trove of the Canon. (This isn’t, of course, to say that we shouldn’t read the suttas right from the beginning of our practice; it’s just that if we have only read books about Buddhism, then we will need to look at moving on to the Canonical works.)
As a starter, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology ‘In the Buddha’s Words’ is an ideal guide to lead its reader by the hand into this sublime world of the Buddha’s words. Nyanatiloka’s and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology ‘Numerical Discourses of the Buddha‘ in some respects is even more approachable. It is not set out in such a systematic way as ‘In the Buddha’s Words’, but it contains a host of brief and pithy suttas, many addressed to the Buddha’s lay-disciples. Bhikkhu Nyanamoli’s anthology ‘The Life of the Buddha‘ is one of my favourite books, largely because it reads so well. If you want to dive head first into a complete text then the Majjhima Nikaya is perhaps the best.
The Buddha famously likened the Dhamma to a raft that – once it has carried us to the further shore of Nibbana – should be relinquished. But until we reach that point the raft of the Dhamma must be learnt, remembered, investigated, and put into practice.
*From Bhikkhu Nyanamoli’s ‘The Life of the Buddha’. I use ‘Passion’ instead of the original ‘lust’.
The next teaching will be on:
the new moon day, Thursday 20th August