Buddhism: The Religion of Thailand

By Richard Burns | November 13, 2001

Printed for free distribution.

We live in the eternal Now, and it is Now that we create our destiny. It follows, that to grieve over the past is useless and to make plans for the future is a waste of time. There is only one ambition that is good, and that is: so to live Now that none may weary of life’s emptiness and none may have to do the task we leave undone.

–From the Book of Sayings of Tsiang Samdup

  • We pay homage to the Buddha for revealing to us the eternal truths of liberation.
  • We pay homage to the Dhamma (the teaching of the Buddha) for making known to us the nature of existence.
  • We pay homage to the Sangha (the order of monks) for preserving the Teaching and practicing its precepts.

Introduction

In recent years Western visitors to Thailand have displayed an increasing interest in our national religion, Buddhism. “Who was the Buddha?” “What do Buddhists believe about life after death, good and evil and the beginning of the world?” To answer these and similar questions the present writing is intended.

The Buddha’s teachings can be understood on two distinct levels. One is logical and conceptual and is concerned with an intellectual comprehension of man and the external universe. It is on this level that the above questions are more easily answered.

The second level is empirical, experiential and psychological. It concerns the ever-present and inescapable phenomena of everyday human experience — love and hate, fear and sorrow, pride and passion, frustration and elation. And most important, it explains the origins of such states of mind and prescribes the means for cultivating those states which are rewarding and wholesome. It was to this second level that the Buddha gave greater emphasis and importance, for its truth is demonstrable within the realm of everyday human existence, and its validity is independent of any world view or belief about life after death.

However, as a means of introducing Buddhisms to those who have little or no previous knowledge of the religion, this writing will give greater emphasis to the former level. The experiential and psychological aspects of the Teaching are outlined at the end.

The Buddha and His Teachings

In this pamphlet we shall focus our attention on the teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Pali language. These scriptural writings form the basis of the Theravada school of Buddhism which predominates in Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Ceylon.

About the year 543 B.C., in a region which is now the land of Nepal, a son was born to King Suddhodana, ruler of the Sakiya clan. The child was named Siddhatta Gotama, and his father surrounded him with vast stores of material wealth and luxury. Although the young prince was given an excellent education, King Suddhodana took measures to prevent the boy from learning of the misery and suffering which prevailed throughout the world. However, we are told that on a certain occasion young Siddhattha rode through the village streets and beheld a man old and decrepit, then he saw a man severely stricken with illness, a dead man, and finally an ascetic or holy man. Shocked by the cruel realities of life and moved by a deep compassion for the sufferings of humanity, the young prince abandoned the pleasures of his aristocratic heritage and went forth alone in search of truth and salvation.

First, he sought out the great spiritual teachers of his day and mastered their meditative exercises. He soon realized, however, that trance states and mysticism are not the paths to salvation. Next, he undertook the disciplines of rig orous self-mortification, as was commonly practiced in ancient India. But asceticism proved to do little more than produce a weak and fragile body. Finally, after six long and strenuous years he sat in quiet meditation beneath the now- famous Bodhi Tree. There looking deep into the nature of his own being, he achieved a level of insight which few men have known. This he called Nirvana, and from that time forth he became known as “The Buddha” or “The Enlightened One”. The remaining 45 years of his life were dedicated to the service and instruction of his fellow beings.

Five Fundamental Concepts

The Buddhist world view can best be under stood if we see it as being based upon five major assumptions:

1. Mutability or Change

All objects, conditions and creations are regarded as being in a continuous state of change. Nothing finite is eternally fixed or unchanging. Birth, growth, decay and death are inevitable for all material objects, men, societies and states of mind. Herein lies the answer to the mystery of creation: new forms arise out of the old; each new condition is determined by that which preceded it.

2. Cause and Effect

This process of change, however, is not con sidered to be chaotic but rather is regulated by a universal Law of cause and effect. The laws of cause and effect are impersonal, impartial and unchanging. The only things which do not change are the laws of change.

3. Selfishness and Suffering

The Law of cause and effect includes not only the laws of physics and chemistry so familiar to the Western world, but also includes laws of moral or psychological cause and effect known as karma-vipaka, or more commonly, karma.

Karma acts through time, and thus the full effects of one’s thoughts and deeds may not become manifest until some years later. Karma is ines capable, for the Buddha said:

Not in the sky, not in the midst of the
sea, nor if we enter into the clefts of
the mountains, is there known a spot in
the whole world where a man might be
freed from an evil deed.

Not in the sky, not in the midst of the
sea, nor if we enter into the clefts of
the mountains, is there known a spot in
the whole world where death could not
overcome a mortal.

(Dhammapada 127-8)

One important aspect of the law of Karma is that selfishness results in suffering for the selfish party in proportion to the amount of wrong that has been committed. Conversely, love, com passion and other virtuous states of mind create proportionate amounts of happiness and emotional well-being. Often this is stated as “Desire is the cause of suffering”. And in this context the word which has been translated into English as “suffering” is the Pali word dukkha. Dukkha is a term which includes all types of unpleasant experiences such as worry, fear, sorrow, dissatisfac tion, disharmony, etc. When the mind is craving pleasures or is strongly motivated by greed, hatred or egotism, it becomes predsposed to dukkha. A paradox is noted in that happiness is best found by those who are not preoccupied with looking for it. Thus we find in Buddhism no eternal punishment or eternal reward, but rather happiness and sorrow in proportion to one’s own thoughts and actions.

Karma operates independently of any social mores or cultural standards of good and evil. Also, it does not account for all pleasure and displeasure, for the Buddha said that many of one’s pleasures and painful experiences are not the result of ones previous actions. (Anguttara-Nikaya I, 173)

4. Nirvana (Nibbana)

Since all which is born must die, since all which is finite must change, the only thing immor tal, infinite and unchanging is that which was never born and is not compounded. This is Nir vana. But the Buddha talked relatively little about Nirvana, for since it is neither matter nor energy, and since it does not exist within space and time, it is completely unrelated to anything with which we are familiar. Thus, it cannot be described, conceptualized nor understood by the normal human mind. It is known only by direct experience beyond sense preception and is the end of all dukkha. When Nirvana is experienced, ego tism has died, for Nirvana comes only with the abolition of all selfishness and craving. Yet one does not vegetate bu continues to act and work as long as the body remains alive. This is Buddhist salvation, and it is found by the training of one’s mind and a maturing of the personalilty. Since it can never be known or comprehended except by direct experience, one should not concern one self with looking for Nirvana per se, but rather one should seek to abolish selfishness from his own personality, and this is a rewarding endeavour regardless of whether or not the highest goal is reached. Said the Buddha;

“Liberated, the wise are indifferent to the senses, and have no heed to seek anything; pass ionless they are beyond pleasure and displeasure.”

(Sutta-Nipata IV)

5. Verifiability

Finally, it is stated that the above four premises can be verified by one’s own reasoning and experience with no dependence on external authority. In a Tibetan text the Buddha is quoted; “Just as people test the purity of gold by burning it in fire, by cutting it, by examining it on a touchstone, so exactly should you, my disci ples, accept my words after subjecting them to a critical test and not out of reverence to me.” (Self Mastery, by Soma Thera. Kandy, Ceylon: Buddhist Publication Society.)

Some Further Aspects of the Doctrine

On the basis of the above five postulates there develop a number of important ramifications:

1. Universality — Truth is universal and unchang ing, and thus depends upon no one revelation or institution. The facts discovered by the Buddha are available for all to discover, and in this sense a man can be a Buddhist and never hear about the religion of Buddhism nor the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha is quoted as saying:

“It is certainly hard to change one’s
set opinions, but a man should let him
self feely test all philosophical sys
tems, adopting and rejecting them as he
sees fit. But the man who is wise no
longer concerns himself with this or
that system (of philosophy), he neither
prides nor decieves himself. He goes
along his independent way.”

(Sutta-Nipata 785-786)

2. Unsupernatural — To one who accepts the teach ings of the Buddha, rituals, offerings, prayer wheels and similar attempts to bring forth super natural help are of virtually no value. The only value of rituals, chanting and homage to Buddha images is the humble and earnest state of mind which may be produced, for such a state of mind has great karmic value.

In the final stages of the path to Nirvana one must rely solely on one’s own efforts and not seek the aid of gods or men. The Buddha’s dying words were : “Decay is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with mindfulness.” (Digha-Nikaya II, 156)

On an earlier occasion, he spoke: “The man enmeshed in delusion will never be purified through the mere study of holy books, or sacri fices to gods, or through fasts, or sleeping on the ground, or difficult and strenuous vigils, or the repetition of prayers. Neither gifts to priests, nor self-castigation, nor performance of rites and ceremonies can work purification in him who is filled with craving. It is not through the partaking of meat or fish that a man becomes impure, but through drunkeness, obstinacy, bigo try, deceit, envy, self-exaltation, disparagement of others and evil intentions — through these a man becomes impure.” (Fundamentals of Buddhism, by Nyanatiloka Mahathera, Buddha Sahitya Sabha, Colombo, Ceylon, 1949, p. 8)

3. World View — The Universe (and all that is in it) is ordered by impartial, unchanging laws. These laws have been operating throughout all time into the infinite past and will continue to operate into the infinite future. There is no unknown first beginning, and there never will be a final end (Samyutta-Nikaya II, 182). The Buddha further said that there are at least a billion other world-sun systems like our own (Anguttara-Nikaya I, 227-228), and as these grow old and die out new solar systems evolve and come into being. Yet unlike the laws of physics and chemistry, the course op events is not a blind matter of chance. Buddhism regards the Universe as a harmoniously functioning whole with a unity behind its divers ity. Man was created by the laws of nature; the world was not created for man.

4. Worldliness and Other-Worldliness. The world as such is not regarded as evil, but rather it is craving for the gross and subtle pleasures of material existence that Buddhism seeks to de stroy. Thus when speaking of liberation, the Buddha meant freeing of the mind from enslaving passion and prejudices, not abhorrnece for mater ial existence per se. He also denounced self-torture. Consequently, the Buddha’s first dis course taught the Middle Way, which is avoiding the extremes of excessive sensusal indulgence and asceticism.

Buddhist monks undertake to train themselves to give up all but a few necessary possessions in order that they may not be deceived by uncon sciously clinging to worldly possessions. And since most of the Buddha’s teachings were directed to monks and nuns, the majority of recorded dialogues are concerned with the ideals of non-materialism and non-atachment. However, the Buddha recognized the needs of the lay people and gave them much advice also. He once said.

The wise and virtuous shine like blazing
fire.
He  who acquires wealth in harmless ways
is like a bee that gathers honey.
Riches  mount  up for him like  an  ant
hill’s rapid growth.
With  wealth  acquired in  this  way,  a
layman  fit for household  life  in
portions four divides his wealth.
Thus will he win friendship.
One  portion for his wants he uses  (in
cluding charity).
Two portions he spends on his business.
A fourth he keeps for times of needs.

(Digha-Nikaya III, 188)

5. Epistemology. — To the Buddhist knowledge should be obtained through one’s own experience and reasoning. This is the same method as employed by modern science, except that Buddhism expands this to a study of one’s own mind as well as a study of the worlds of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Faith, scriptures, mysticism and revelations are not considered to be infall ible roads to truth.

On one occasion the Enlightened One came to the village of Kesaputta where lived certain tribesmen known as the Kalamas. They knew the Buddha to be a renowned spiritual teacher and addressed him as follows:

There are some monks and Brahmins,  Ven
erable Sir,  who visit Kesaputta.   They
illustrate and illuminate only their own
doctrines;  the doctrines of others they
despise,  revile  and  pull  to  pieces.
Venerable Sir,  there is doubt, there is
uncertainty   in  us  concerning   them.
Which  of these reverend monks and  Bra
hmins  spoke the truth and which  false
hood?

To this the Buddha replied;

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt,
to be uncertain. Uncertainty has arisen
in you about what is doubtful. Come,
Kalamas. Do not go upon authoritative
tradition; nor upon what has been ac
quired by repeated hearing; nor upon
rumour; nor upon what is in a scipture;
nor upon speculative metaphysical theo
ries, reasons and arguments; nor upon a
point of view; nor upon specious reason
ing; nor upon accepting a statement as
true because it agrees with a theory
that one is already convinced of; nor
upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon
the consideration “Our teacher says thus
and so”. Kalamas, when you yourselves
know: “these things are bad; these
things are blamable; these things are
censured by the wise; undertaken and
observed, these things lead to harm and
ill”, abandon them.

(Anguttara-Nikaya I, 189)

6. Ethics — Buddhists ethics has two levels, a postive and a negative. Negatively it advocates the eradication of all greed, hatred and delusion from one’s mind. Positively, it advocates the cultivation and development of metta, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity as inherent aspects of one’s personality. “Metta” is a Pali word and is usually translated into English as “love”. However, in Pali there are several words, each with different shades of meaning, all of which can be translated as “love”. If we simultaneously think of the words “friendship”, “love”, and “kindness”, we will have some understanding of the true meaning of “metta”. In the Metta Sutta the Buddha is quoted:

Just as a mother might protect from harm
the son that was her only child, let
all-embracing thoughts of love for every
living theng be thine. An all-embracing
love for all the universe in all its
heights and depth and breadth. An un
stinted love, not marred by enmity.

(Sutta-Nipata 149-150)

The Buddha was the first man in history known to have advocated the returning of good for evil:

Hatred ceases not by hatred in this
world. Through love it comes to an
end. This is an ancient law.

(Dhammapada 5)

Overcome anger by love, evil by good.
Conquer the greedy with liberality
and with truth the speaker of
falsehoods.

(Dhammapada 223)

If one has truly removed all selfishness and developed love and compassion, there is no need for strict moral codes or other artificial rules of conduct. For such a person would never be inclined to do wrong, and thus his virtue would be natural and spontaneous rather than arbitrary and premeditated. Said the Buddha:

Some there are who having taken vows and
observing them think morality alone to
be the highest and say that purity is
achieved by restraint. They say “Here
then let’s train; purity lies herein”.

If such a one has fallen away from some
rule or ritual, having failed to do a
certain performance, he is agitated,
yearning all the time for purification;
just as one who has lost his caravan
while away from home.

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All rule and ritual left behind, all
karma blamable and praiseworthy, not
concerning himself with cleansing nor
with stains may one freely fare.

(Sutta-Nipata 898-900)

However, rules of ethics are of great value and importance to the majority of mankind. And thus, when speaking to lay people, the Enlightened One gave much practical advice, such as in the Sigalovada Sutta:

In five ways, young householder, a child
should minister to his parents:

  1. Once supported by them I shall now be their support.
  2. I shall perform duties incumbent on them.
  3. I shall keep up the lineage and tradition of my family.
  4. I shall make myself worthy of my heritage.
  5. Furthermore, I shall offer alms in honour of my departed relatives.

In five ways, young householder, parents thus ministered to by their children show their compassion:

  1. They restrain them from evil.
  2. They persuade them to do good.
  3. They train them in a profession.
  4. They contract a suitable marriage for them.
  5. In due time, they hand over their inheritance to them.

In five ways should a master minister to his servants and employees

  1. By assigning them work according to their strength.
  2. By supplying them with food and wages.
  3. By tending them in sickness.
  4. By sharing with them unusual delicacies.
  5. By granting them leave at times.

Thus, ministered to as the zenith, the clergy show their compassion to the layman in six ways:

  1. They restrain him from evil.
  2. They persuade him to do good.
  3. They love him with kindly thoughts.
  4. They make him hear what he has not heard.
  5. They correct and purify what he has heard.
  6. They reveal the path to a heavenly state.

(Digha-Nikaya III, 189-190)

Action is precipitated by thought, and for this reason evil exists first in the mind. Consequently, Buddhism regards hatred, egotism and immoral intent as wrong regardless of the actions which they may or may not produce. Unlike Western religions, Buddhist ethics are not founded upon obedience to a set of commandments, but rather they are based upon true insight into the hazards of greed, hatred and delusion and the inherent values of love, equanimity and compassion. Consequently the words “good” and “evil” in Buddhism do not carry the same connatations of shame and guilt as in the West. In fact the Buddha often avoided the words “good” and “evil” and instead used “wholesome” and “unwholesome”, or “desirable” and “undesirable”.

7. Society — Buddhists are taught not to depend on the arbitray customs, traditions and mores of society to find truth, happiness and well-being; nor should they look to society to find a code of ethics. This, however, does not imply a total apathy toward social organizations. The Buddha not only taught against the inequalities of the caste system, but also opposed the institution of slavery.

For over 2,000 years, Buddhists have built hospitals and rest-houses, while Buddhist rulers have, in the name of their religion, drained swamps, built wells and carried out other measures in the interest of public welfare.

On the subject of illness, the Buddha said:

Whosoever, brethren, would wait upon me,
whosoever, brethren, would honour me,
whosoever, brethren, would follow my
advice, he should wait upon the sick.

(Vinaya Mahavagga)

And regarding the caste system he taught:

Not by birth is one an outcast.
Not by birth is one a noble.
But by deeds is one an outcast.
And by deeds is one a noble.

(Sutta-Nipata 136)

8. Psychology — Since all finite creations must perish, since all which is born must die, nowhere in man is there to be found an immortal soul. Instead, Buddhism regards the human personality as a functioning aggregate of sensations, memories, perceptions and concepts all manifesting on a background of consciousness. The only thing which is regarded as immortal is that which is never born, is not finite and not personal: this is Nirvana.

9. Death — If there is no soul, does Buddhism then teach that death is the terminatrion of all conscious existence? This question cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no”.

It is not strictly true that Buddhism teaches reincarnation, nor does it advocate an absolute annihilation. Rather, it takes a position some place between these two extremes. The Buddha was born a Hindu much as Christ was born a Jew. And in the Hindu religion each conscious being is regarded as having an immortal and unchanging soul. Each soul is a manifestation of the great Universal Soul which the Hindus call Brahma or God. Brahma is the Absolute, the basis of all creation, and the ultimate goal of the finate soul is to return and unite with Brahma. This union with Brahma is the Hindu conception of Nirvana and is achieved after many reincarnations. With each new life the soul learns new lessons, sins, suffers from its sins, and goes to the next life somewhat better than before. At last it is purified of all selfishness, attains Nirvana, and is no longer reborn. It is important that one distinguishes this Hindu belief from the Buddhist position which follows.

In relpy to the question “What will happen to me when I die?”, the Buddha might answer, “What are you?” For the word “I” or “self” includes not one thing but many. Death, of course, means the cessation of all bodily functioning. What then becomes of the mind? With our modern knowledge of neurophysiology, there can be little question that most, if not all, of the things we call mental activities are directly dependent upon the electrochemical workings of the brain. When the brain ceases to function, sensations, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness come to an end.

Buddhism teaches that the mind without matter is an impossibility; a body is a prerequisite for consciousness. However, it also teaches that a body alone is not enough. There is a non-physical aspect of the human psyche which must be present before consciousness can occur.

Mind and body form an interdependent rela tionship, like two bundles of reeds neither of which can stand alone but stand by leaning on each other. Without a psychic component, the body does not develop and thrive, and without a material substrate consciousness does not manifest.

Instead of an unchanging soul which inhabits successive bodies and itself independent of those bodies, Buddhism teaches a dynamic changing process, the manifestation of which is determined by its physical substrate. It is like a match flame which is used to light a candle, and then the match is extinguished. Then with the candle, one lights a pressure lantern and extinguishes the candle. We might ask: Is the flame now burning in the pressure lantern the same flame which once burned in the match? The answer can be either yes or no. Similarly, the Buddha said there are two extremes. One extreme is to say that when a man dies that same person is born again, and the other extreme is to say that at death that person is forever annihilated. The Buddhist position is between these two.

Furthermore, the Buddha noted that which we call mind or self is continually changing from moment to moment and day to day. Different and often opposing moods, attitudes, opinions and concepts continually arise and fall in the focus of awareness. No one of these is the true self; rather the self is the total of all of them. Or again, one’s personality at age four is quite different from that at age 12, which is different still from the personality of that “same” person at age 20 or again at age 40. Like the match flame burning in the pressure lantern, the self is not the same person but rather an evolving process. Similarly the phenomenon of rebirth as taught in Buddhism is the continuation of process rather than the transfer of an entity or substance.

As most people go through life they are in fluenced by their families, societies and other features of their environments to the degree that they become products of their enmvironments. As a result, the development of their personalities is largely a matter of chance. The purpose of Buddhism is to guide and direct the evolution of one’s personality so that such development is no longer fortuitous. Nirvana is the ultimate goal in this process of maturation, and with Nirvana rebirth comes to an end.

What is it,  Venerable Sir, that will be
reborn?
A  psycho-physical combination,  O King,
is the answer.
But how,  Venerable Sir?  Is it the same
psycho-physical combination as this
present one?
No,  O  King.   But the present  psycho-
physical combination produces karm
ically  wholesome  and  unwholesome
volitional activities,  and through
such  karma a  new  psycho-physical
combination will be reborn.

(Milinda-Panha 46)

Karma which has been produced in one lifetime and has not manifested its results by the time of death will manifest itself in the following life and can even determine the time and circumstances of the new birth. Consequently, the condition in which each man finds himself is the result of his own former thoughts and deeds. His present behavior is what will determine his future state. Thus each man makes his own destiny.

10. Knowledge and Intelligence — On this matter the Buddha said.

If a man can become pure simply by
changing his views if by mere knowledge
he can be freed of sorrow, then some
thing other than the Noble Eightfold
Path makes pure and puts and end to
sorrow. But this cannot be.

(Sutta-Nipata 789)

The understanding of only a few important facts is necessary for salvation. One can go on indefinitely acquiring facts and yet never achieve the understanding which leads to Nirvana. Thus, knowledge of oneself is more importnat than knowledge of the world. Said the Buddha:

It is not from views, from tradition,
from mere knowledge, nor from virtue and
achievement, that purity is attained,
Magandiya. Nor is it from being without
views, without tradition, without know
ledge, without virtue or achievement
that purity is attained.

(Sutta-Nipata 839)

Intelligence, like knowledge, is regarded as a valuable tool, a means to an end but not an end in itself. In the final analysis reality transcends normal human understanding, and thus one of the highest achievements of the intellecdt is seen when it points beyond itself to reality.

11. Discipline — Said the Buddha: “Though he may conquer a thousand thousand men in battle, greater still is the man who conquers himself.” (Dhammapada 103)

Discipline is essential. Only through per sistent self-discipline, said the Buddha, can one overcome passions and sloth and eventually achieve Nirvana. Yet, though a man must purify himself, he cannot take himself to Nirvana, for Nirvana is beyond the realm of finite human endeavour and becomes manifest of its own when one has finally established the prerequisite conditions. Again the Buddha is quoted:

He who does not rouse himself when it is
time to rise, who, though young and
strong, is full of sloth, whose will and
thought are weak, that lazy idle man
never finds the way to wisdom.

(Dhammapada 280)

12. As an Institution — Buddhism regards itself as a group of important truths, which, when properly understood, can be of great value to almost any human being. It is important that these teachings become institutionalized and an indi genous part of a society, for there is no other way that they can reach all levels of humanity and also last for a period of many generations. In addition, if such a teaching does not exist, intolerant ideologies, superstitions and erroneous theologies will necessarily arise to satisfy the spiritual needs of a given culture. At one time the Enlightened One spoke:

Released am I, monks, from ties both
human and divine. You also are deliv
ered from fetters human and divine.
Wander for the welfare and happiess of
many, out of compassion for the world,
for the gain, for the welfare and happi
ness of gods and men. Proclaim the
Teaching excellent in the beginning,
excellent in the middle and excellent in
the end, in the spirit and in the
letter. Proclaim ye the life of consum
mate purity.

(Samyutta-Nikaya I, 105)

On the other hand, once a man becomes con cerned with Buddhism as an institution and works for this as his primary cause, he has lost sight of the fact that truth is universal. The word “Buddhism” is only a symbol which represents cer tain beliefs and concepts. These truths could be equally as well represented by some other word, institution, or symbol. Once we become prejudiced towards Buddhism, we cease to be Buddhists in the true sense of the word. Each Buddhist has the opportunity to give his knowledge to others. It is not really necessary that he gives it to them under the name of Buddhism, but to do so helps to insure an embodiment of this knowledge and thus advances the opportunity for it to be acquired by others. In Digha-Nikaya I the Buddha said:

Monks, if others were to speak against
me, or against the Teaching, or against
our monastic order, you need not on that
account entertain thoughts of ill-will
and spite and be dissatisfied with them.
If you do harbour hatred, that will not
only impede your mental development, but
you will also fail to judge how far that
speech is right or wrong. But also,
monks, if others speak highly of me,
highly of the Teaching and our monastic
order, you need not on that account be
elated, for that too will mar your inner
development. You should acknowledge
what is right and show the truth of what
has been said.

To its credit, Buddhism can claim that in 2,500 years of its history, it has not burned one witch, nor fought one holy way and has had few instances of persecution of heritics.

However, no religion can exist for long among millions of people without undergoing some change and corruption. Prayer wheels, the worship of images and the offerings to the Buddha are all examples of this. Also, later Buddhists, espec ially in China and Japan, created many legendary stories about the Buddha and his teachings. Nirvana was replaced by a glorious heaven where the Lord Buddha sits on His throne, and faith became more important than understanding.

As A Way of Life

The most fundamental and important aspect of human existence is not one’s beliefs, nor social status, not intellect, nor material possessions; rather it is motives, emotions, feelings. Almost by definition it is feelings, and feelings alone, which give purpose, meaning, value and signif icance to our every action and encounter. Without feeling or motives there would be no incentive for one to think, speak or act; life would be chronic apathy. Yet some feelings are more rewarding, wholesome and meaningful than others. And quite often feelings (be they mental or physical) are unpleasant, empty, sorrowful, disharmonious, worrisome, irritating, frustrating or in some way of negative value; in other words, dukkha.

Thus the Buddha summarized his doctrine into the Four Noble Truths, which are:

  1. Dukkha (i.e., suffering), in all its varied forms is an inherent and universal aspect of conscious existence.
  2. The cause of this suffering is desire or craving. (Desire in this sense should not be confused with the simple recognition of a pleasurable or happy experience. The recognition and acceptance of such an experience is not in itself unwholesome; rather the danger arises from craving or attachement to such an experience.)
  3. There is an end of dukkha which man can realize.
  4. This end of suffering is achieved by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

However, it is not the mere attainment of a blissful existence which should motivate one towards moral behavior. On this matter the Buddha said:

To be seized by spirits (allegorically)
means living a virtuous or religious
life chiefly in the hope of being born,
as a result of one’s merit, in a heaven
ly world, as an angel, or a divine being
(and this is to be avoided.)
(Two Buddhist Parables by Nyanasata
Thera, Buddhist Publication Society:
Kandy, Ceylon)

The Noble Eightfold Path consists of:

  1. Right Understanding — the development and application of one’s in intellectual capabilities for the sake of understanding and resolving the problems of selfishness and suffering.
  2. Right Thought — thoughts free from lust, thoughts free from ill-will and thoughts free from cruelty.
  3. Right Speech — to abstain from harsh language, lying and vain talk.
  4. Right Action — to abstain from killing, stealing, intoxicating drink and sexual misconduct. (For monks, complete celibacy is expected; laymen are advised to abstain from adultery or other inappropriate sexual behaviour.
  5. Right Livelihood — the avoidance of any occupation which leads to harm or undesirable conduct, such as dealing in intoxicating drinks, slavery or murder weapons.
  6. Right Effort — the exertion of one’s will and self-discipline to develop wholesome mental states and overcome unwholesome states.
  7. Right Mindfulness — This is probably the most important and profound aspect of Buddhist mental development and includes a variety of different meditation practices and psychological techniques. Such practices and techniques are varied according to one’s individual spiritual needs and personality structure and include developing awareness of unconscious motives and impulses.
  8. Right Concentration — the training of the mind to remain concen trated on a single object and not wander from thought to thought.

These steps are not taken one at a time, but rather are worked on simultaneously in the maturation of one’s personality. No man finds Nirvana overnight, and to rigidly force oneself to abandon all worldly conduct before one is capable of such a step can be as detrimental as clinging to habits of excessive sensual indulgence. In the words of the Buddha:

Just as, brethren, the mighty ocean
deepens and slopes gradually down, hollow
after hollow, not plunging by a
sudden precipice; even so, brethren, in
this Dhamma-Discipline the training is
gradual, it goes step by step; there is
no sudden penetration of insight.

(Udana 54)

By degrees, little by little, from time
to time a wise man should remove his own
impurities, as a smith removes the dross
from silver.

(Dhammapada 239)

This fickle, unsteady mind, difficult to
guard, difficult to control, the wise
man makes straight, as the fletcher
straightens the arrow.

As the fish drawn from its watery abode
and thrown upon the land quivers and
throbs, so quivers and throbs the mind
while forsaking the realm of senses.

Hard to control, unstable is this mind;
it flits wherever it likes. Good it is
to subdue the mind. A subdued mind
brings happiness.

(Dhammapada 33-35)


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