What is Buddhism?
A Brief introduction to the teachings of the Lord Buddha
Phraalan Nyan Avajiro
A booklet from the 1970's
Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia
Secondly I wish to state that this publication is entirely non-commercial and represents my own personal research notes during my life's travels. I understand that there may be issues of copyright involved in the reproduction of the entire article, but this work has been done not for commercial but for spiritual gain. The author, I believe, sees his article as one which provides an introduction to the teachings of the Lord Buddha, and as such has awakened an interest to know more. It is the kindling, or rekindling, of the flame of this spirit of awakenment and interest which is a primary concern for the author and myself.
Thirdly, I wish to thank my daughter Jessica, for the transcription of this work. Those readers who see themselves to be the students of life will appreciate the gift of this work by the original author. It is hoped that the following is a resource to all folk.
Mountain Man Graphics, Australia
In the southern winter of 2001
What is Buddhism?
--- Thus spoke the Tathagata.
"If thou would worship in the noblest way,
bring flowers in thy hands.
Their names are these :
--- Thus spoke the Tathagata.
A few words on the Buddha himself. He lived more than 2,500 years ago in an area of what is now northern India and Nepal. Born Siddhatta Gotama, he came from an aristocratic family and, although he had all the luxuries life could provide, he renounced this life while still a young man and left his home, including his wife and infant son, in order to seek the truth of existence. For seven years through great mental struggles and severe self-discipline he strived. Then one day seated in meditation under the Bodhi tree, the Tree of Enlightenment, at Buddha-Gaya, he attained his goal after which he was the Buddha, the Enlightened One. For the next 45 years until his death at the age of about 80, the Buddha taught all classes of men and women that which had been revealed to him whilst he was under the Bodhi tree. Today his teachings are followed by millions throughout the world.
The Buddha looked closely at the physical and the mental phenomena of existence. There are to be found five groups or aggregates: the body or matter, feelings, perception, mental formations and consciousness. The body is composed of varying amounts of what are sometimes called the four great elements, but attributes would perhaps be better. These are: solidity, fluidity, heat and motion. From these elements come our sense organs and their corresponding objects in the environment: The eye and visible form; the ear and sound; the nose and odour; the tongue and taste and the body and tangible things. There are also mind objects. All of these are included in the aggregate of matter. The feelings may, according to their nature, be one of five kinds: bodily agreeable, bodily disagreeable, mentally agreeable, mentally disagreeable or indifferent. Of perceptions there are six: form, sound, odour, taste, touch and mental. The mental formations, which arise with each and every consciousness, determine the moral quality of feelings, perception and consciousness.
In these five aggregates there is not to be found anything of a lasting nature. In the flux of life, in fact, everything is found to have but a fleeting existence to be replaced each in its turn by a new phenomena. Everything and every sentient being has, the Buddha found, three characteristics of existence. The first of these is impermanence. Nothing in the mind, body or in the environment remains in the same state for even two consecutive instants. The second characteristic revealed by a close examintation of the composition of the aggregate is that nowhere is there to be found a self, a non-changing "soul" or being. Our idea of an abiding, unchanging self, manifest in our conception of the ego, just does not stand up to investigation. Thus with the whole of existence being in a state of flux, impermanent and without an abiding self, comes the realisation that it is a condition or state that is highly unsatisactory.
The Buddha stressed these characteristics again and again. One thing appears, then disappears conditioning the appearance of the next in a never beginning and never ending series of cause and effect. There was no first cause. There will be no last effect. Buddhaghosa, a great Buddhist commentator, stated:
It may safely be said that this craving or thirst for existence and for things both material and immaterial derives from the previously mentioned ego concept which falsely leads one to think that there is an "I" who wants or desires things, that there is an "I" whose needs have to be stated. This craving is not only for sensual satisfaction but pervades such traits as wealth and power, ideas and ideals, and views, opinions and theories. All the troubles in the world can be laid at the door of craving. All wars, and political and economic problems are the result of this selfish craving on the part of individuals both past and present.
In our ordinary lives all that we are aware of through our sense organs is distorted by the conditioning that we, as individuals, have been subjected to since the day that we were born. Our early socialisation forces these distortions into our system just as the socialization of our forbears did to them since time immemorial. We cannot know absolute truth through recognised methods. All we know has been distorted by our senses. Yet we continue to learn by such assimilation. All experience, everything we know, is but a distortion, great or little, of the truth.
In this lies the roots of craving, the origins of the unsatisfactoriness shown by the Buddha in the Second Noble Truth. All actions on the part of an individual have what is called a kammatic result. The English translation for "kamma" is, in fact, action. It is the fruits of our actions that keep us bound to the wheel of existence. It is the consciousness behind any action, sometimes called volition or intention, that deems whether such action is good, bad or neutral. Thus the intention is all important, more important even than the manifestation of the intention, the action experienced.
Bad actions are rooted in greed, hatred or delusion. It is true to say that until we know ourselves fully, we often remain ignorant of the root causes of our actions: such causes may be buried deep in the subconscious.
With such a seemingly gloomy picture of life, you must be wondering why I said that the teachings of the Buddha were not pessimistic. This will become apparent when we examine the two final Noble Truths. Firstly we will look at the stopping or cessation of all this unsatisfactoriness and then we will consider the Buddha's way to attain this realization.
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.
Before discussing this path in detail, it is necessary to consider the implications of the word "right" which prefaces the eight steps. Normally we think of the word "right" as just the opposite of "wrong", but in this case it would be foolhardy so to do. Many, many accusations might be deemed "right" in one society or social group but wrong in another. Customs of clan, race, nation or creed are not, in themselves, the governing factor as to whether an action is "right" or not. And the self same action performed by two different people from different motives may be "right" in one case and "wrong" in the other. Take giving, for instance. This is a most meritorious action and is certainly "right" if the giving is tainted with desire, albeit sub-conscious, for some kind of return on the investment of giving. Then such an action would not be "right" at all. "perfect" and "harmonious" should well be applied to give a suitable modification of the word "right", then a far better idea will be aquired of just what is the intention in the step to be undertaken.
The eight steps of the path are undertaken by those who would perfect themselves in the Buddha's teachings. But the universality of them means that they are a perfect guide to the life style of the Buddhist and the non-Buddhist alike. The eight are often divided into three sections. These three sections, or qualities, cover respectively: morality, calmness or concentration, and wisdom. They have each to be perfected on both the emotional and intellecual level.
The last step in this morality section is that which stresses "right livelihood". This, of course, means that one should earn ones living and support ones family by pure and honourable means. Work which entails the killing of any animals is, for instance, not right livelihood. If anyone suffers as a result of one's work then such work is not right livelihood. The Buddha stressed that the life of a monk was the purest and surest way or following this edict.
It will be apparent that in the following these three steps linked together as "morality", a guilt-free mind will be a result. One would have a stainless conscience, an essential if one is to aquire calmness ans concentration; the subject of the next section.
There are two principle types of meditation. The first of these is called samadhi or concentration. This certainly helps to calm the mind and was, in fact, the type of meditation practised by the Buddha during his early search for Enlightenment. It is very benificial to those who practise it, but it has one great limitation: it does not enable the practitioner to see into the nature of existence. In other words it does not allow for the experiencing of the Four Noble Truths. Great mental feats are possible by adepts, to be sure. The jhanas or mental trances are experienced, and at its highest stages the mind is quietened almost to the point of extintion. But it is, the Buddha found, only a dead end as far as insight or wisdom is concerned.
In the pure samadhi type of meditation there is an external object which is taken as the object of meditation. It may be a disc, for instance. This brings with it, providing one has good morality and thus a calm, guiltless mind, a very pure state of expanded consciousness. But defilements which we have inherent in our minds are not, by this process, eradicated. They are merely sublimated in the sub-conscious and can reappear at any time in the future.
The Buddha found that the internal action of breathing in and breathing out was an ideal meditation object and one that brought about not only concentration but also wisdom in the form of pure insight into the nature of things. This type of meditation, known as samatha-vipassana, is the type commonly practised in Thailand and other Theravada countries such as Ceylon and Burma. In the continual rising and falling of the abdomen, an integral part of the breathing process, we have a microcosm of life itself. The bare awareness on the rising and falling, and incidentally, stimuli of other sense organs, allied to a calm, concentrated mind, is vastly different from pure samadhi. This is because we have what might be called a "living" rather than a static object of meditation. The continued meditation on this inner object can reveal to us the truth of the three characteristics of existance. These are, you will recall, impermanence, non-self and, thus, the complete unsatisfactoriness of all compounded things.
As the meditator becomes more and more proficient, he will be able to rid himself completely of the defilements in mind by seeing their true nature. He will also be examining both himself and his environment in terms of the five aggregates: matter, feelings, perception, mental formations and consciousness. He will realise that there is nothing in life apart from these aggregates and that even these are in a state of flux, never the same for two consecutive moments. He will be able to experience that there is that which is known and that there is a knowing. He will find no knower apart from this knowing.
It will later be found that, as a proficient meditator, the ways of life will not leave so many traces on the person. How can one become very embroiled in mere illusion? Like spectators in the cinema we can become mere observers to the phenomena of the flux of life without ourselves constantly contantly getting bruised in the process. Remember the lotus flower rises above the muddy water. It is not stained by it. The muddy water provides it with the sustenance of life. The Buddha's teachings do not make for a selfish way - far from it. It is true that only an individual can help himself in the task of realistion. But with the true knowledge comes compassion and loving kindness. These cannot be practised with a heart full of greed, hatred and delusion. When, through our meditation, the ego casing is shattered, there is no more craving thus there is perfect purity.
The author is happy to help any readers on any points concerning Buddhism.
Please write to:
Phra Alan Nyanavajiro, Wat Kiriwong, Paknampho, Nakhon Sawan, Thailand.