WHAT DID THE BUDDHA TEACH?
Eighty years before the commencement of the Buddhist Era, a great
man was born into the world. He was the son of King Suddhodana and Queen
Siri Maya Kapilavastu of the Sakka country which is now within the boundaries of Nepal. His name was
“Siddharttha”. Thirty-five years later, Prince Siddharttha attained Supreme Enlightenment and thereafter
became known as the “Enlightened One” or the “Lord Buddha”. He proclaimed his “Dhamma” or Universal Truth to
and thereafter, the Buddhist religion (the Teaching of the
Buddha) and the Buddhist community of disciples came into existence.
The community was composed of bhikkhus or monks (including samaneras or
male novices), bhikkhunis or nuns (including samaneris or female novices), upasakas
or male lay followers and upasikas or female lay followers. At present, in Thailand, we have only monks and novices, upasakas or
Buddhist laymen and upasikas or Buddhist laywomen. A monk is a man who
has been ordained and conducts himself in accordance with the precepts laid
down for a monk. A novice is a person under or over 20 years of age who has been
and conducts himself in accordance with the precepts laid down
for a novice.
A Buddhist layman or laywomen is one who has taken refuge in the
Triple Gem, i.e. the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha,
and observes the precepts applicable to laymen and laywomen. At present we call laymen and laywomen,
whether of age or under age, “Buddhamamaka” and “Buddhamamika” respectively,
meaning “he or she who believes in the Buddha”. Buddhism has spread from its place of birth into the various countries of
The focal point of worship in Buddhism is the Triratana (the Triple Gem) namely the Buddha who by himself discovered, realized and
proclaimed the Dhamma thereby establishing the Buddhist religion, the Dhamma
(Universal Truth) discovered, realized and proclaimed by the Buddha and the
Sangha or community of those who hear, follow and realize the Buddha's Teachings.
Some members of the Sangha become monks and help in the dissemination of
Buddhism and the perpetuation of monkhood up to the present time.
Everyone who is initiated into the Buddhist religion, whether a layman or a monk, ought
to conform to a preliminary rule, namely one must solemnly promise to take
refuge in and accept the Triple Gem as one’s father who gives birth to one’s
spiritual life. A Buddhist may associate himself or herself with people of
other faiths and pay respect to objects of reverence of other religions in an
appropriate manner in the same way as he or she may pay respect to the father,
mother or elders of other people while having at the same time his or her own
father. He will not lose his Buddhist religion as long as he believes in the
Triple Gem, just as he will remain the son of his own father as long as he does
not disown him and adopt someone else as his father instead, or just as he will
remain a Thai as long as he does not adopt another nationality.
Buddhism, therefore, is not intolerant. Its followers may at will associate with people
of other nationalities and religions. Buddhism does not teach disrespectfulness
to any one. On the contrary, it declares that respect should be paid to all
those to whom respect is due and that the Dhamma should not be withheld from
the knowledge of others and kept only to oneself. Whoever desires to study and
practice the Dhamma may do so without having to profess first the Buddhist
faith. The Dhamma as proclaimed by Buddhist religion, will help to demonstrate
that it is “Truth” that will be beneficial and bring happiness in the present
life. The essence of the entire Buddhist teachings lies in the Four Noble
Noble Truth (Ariya-Sacca) is short for
“truth of the noble ones (or of those who have attained a high degree of
advancement)”, “truth attainable by the noble ones”, “truth by which one is
ennobled”. It should first be understood that it is not simply truth that is
agreeable to the world or to oneself, but truth that is directly born of
wisdom. The four Noble truths are :
Dukkha or suffering; which means birth,
decay and death which are the normal incidents of life. It also means sorrow,
lamentation, pain, grief and despair which are at times experienced by our body
and mind. To be separated from the pleasant, to be disappointed, or to be in
contact with the unpleasant are also suffering. In short our body and mind are
subject to suffering or, in other words, we may say that our existence is bound
up with suffering.
Samudaya; which means the cause of
suffering, which is desire. It is a compelling urge of the mind, such as the
longing to own what we desire, to be what we desire to be, or to avoid those
states to which we feel aversion.
Nirodha; which means cessation of
suffering, which connotes extinction of desire or such longings of the mind!
Magga; which means the way to the
cessation of suffering, which is the Noble Eightfold Path, namely Right
Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood,
Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
Some people believe that Buddhism is pessimistic in outlook
because its teachings deal only with suffering and are of so high a standard
that ordinary people are unable to practise it because it advocates extinction
of desire, which is very difficult to accomplish. Since such misunderstanding
exists, clarification is necessary before the Noble Truths can be dealt with.
The Buddhist religion is neither wholly pessimistic nor wholly optimistic. It
derives its outlook from truth, i.e., truth which can only be understood
through a combination of insight and purity of mind.
According to the history of Buddhism, the Buddha did not
enunciate the Four Noble Truths to anyone lightly. He would first feed the
minds of his listeners with other points of the Dhamma until they became pure
enough to be receptive to higher teaching. Then he would expose the Four Noble
Truths to them.
The other points of the Dhamma that are constantly stressed
particularly to laymen, are Dana or charity, Sila or morality, the natural and
logical result of charity and morality which is bliss (meaning happiness and
prosperity even in this life), the dangers of sensuality (anything that binds
one to love and desire) and the advantages to be derived from the renunciation
This method of gradual teaching adopted by the Buddha is
comparable to the present day method of education. We may say that the Four
Noble Truths were taught at university level; pupils at lower educational
levels were taught other points of the Dhamma suitable to their understanding.
The Buddha would never teach the Dhamma beyond the comprehension of his
listeners, for to have done so would not have benefited anyone. For those who are
in search of knowledge, although they may not be able to comply with the Four
Noble Truths, study of this fundamental point of the Dhamma would certainly
advance their rational knowledge of truth and may make them consider how much
they can in practice comply with it in spite of the fact that they are still
unable to rid themselves of desire. Such consideration is possible as in the
following instances :
Everyone wants to be happy and never wants to suffer, but why are people still suffering
and unable to do away with their own sufferings themselves? Sometimes, the more
they try to get rid of them, the more they suffer. This is because they do not
know what is the true cause of suffering and what is the true cause of
happiness. If they knew, they would be successful. They would eliminate the
cause of suffering and create the cause of happiness.
One of the important obstacles to this success is one’s own heart. Because we comply too much with
the dictates of our hearts, we have to suffer.In saying that
we comply with the dictates of our hearts, in fact, we mean that we are
gratifying desire or those compelling urges of the heart. In worldly existence,
it is not yet necessary to suppress desire totally because desire is the
driving force that brings progress to the world and to ourselves. But desire
must be under proper control and some limit should be set for satisfying it. If
desire could be thus restricted, the probability of a happy life in this world
would be much greater. Those who start fires that burn themselves and the world
are invariable people who do not restrict the desires of their hearts within
If we wish to acquire knowledge, we should study hard. If we
desire rank and wealth, we should persevere in our duty to the best of our
ability. This is tantamount to observing the Noble Eightfold Path in relation
to the world, which is at the same time acting in accordance with the Dhamma.
But human beings require some rest. Our bodies need rest and sleep. Our minds
also must be given time to be empty. If they are at work all the time, we cannot sleep.
Among those who take pleasure in forms and sounds there are, for example,
some who are fond of good music; but, if they were compelled to listen to music too
long, the lovely music constantly sounding in their ears would become a
torment. They would run away from it and long for a return of silence or
tranquility. Our mind requires such tranquility for a considerable time every
day. This is rest for the mind or in other word the extinction of desire which,
in fact, amounts to elimination of suffering. Therefore, if one really
understands that elimination of suffering is nothing but keeping the mind at
rest and that rest is a mental nourishment which is needed every day, then one
will begin to understand the meaning of Nirodha.We should
go on to realize that when our mind is restless it is because of desire. The
mind then causes us to act, speak and think in consonance with its agitated
state. When gratified, it may became peaceful; but only momentarily, because
action dictated by a restless mind may very soon afterwards bring us intense
pain and severe punishment or make us conscience stricken and cause us to
regret it for a very long time. So let it be known that a person with his mind
in such a state is termed a “slave of desire”.
Then is there a way to overcome desire or to master the desire in our own
hearts? Yes, there is the Noble Eightfold Path the leads to the extinction of suffering,
Sammaditthi or Right Understanding, meaning an intellectual grasp of the
Four Noble Truths or of the true nature of existence even in a simplified form as
outlined in the preceding paragraphs.
Sammasankappa or Right Intention. Meaning intention to be free from all
bonds of Dukkha. Such intention should be free from revenge, hatred, and
Sammavaca or Right Speech, meaning abstinence from lying; from tale-bearing and vicious
talk that cause discord; from harsh language; and from vain, irresponsible and
Sammakammanta or Right Action, meaning avoidance of killing and torturing, of theft and
misappropriation, and of adultery.
Samma-ajiva or Right Livelihood, meaning rejection of wrong means of livelihood and living
by right means.
Sammavayama or Right Effort, meaning effort to avoid the arising of evil; effort to
overcome evil and demeritorious states that have already arisen; effort to
develop good and beneficial states of mind, and effort to maintain them when
they have arisen.
Sammasati or Right Mindfulness, meaning dwelling in contemplation of the true states of
the mind, for instance, the Satipatthana or four Foundations of Mindfulness which
are the Body, Sensation, Mind, and Dhamma.
Sammasamadhi or Right Concentration, meaning the fixing of the mind upon a single deed which
we wish to perform along the right path.
The Noble Eightfold Path is in reality one complete path with
eight component parts which may be summed up in three stages of training
(sikkha) namely :
Sila Sikkha or Training in Morality, which includes Right
Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. In general this means that whatever
we say or do, we must say or do in the right way. This also applies to our
livelihood. We must reject wrong means of livelihood and live by right ones. If
we do not yet have a means of livelihood, for instance if we are students
depending on the support of our benefactors, we must learn to control ourselves
and refrain from spending it wrongly or improperly on ourselves and our
Citta Sikkha or Mental Training, which includes Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right
Concentration. Generally speaking, the subject of the mind is very important.
We must study and train our minds. It is not really difficult to do so if only
we can get started. For instance we can begin developing diligence, train
ourselves in mindfulness and cultivate our memories by focusing our minds on
what is beneficial and by practicing concentration. Such training can be applied to our
study since it requires diligence and proper use of our memory and powers of
Panna Sikkha or Training in Wisdom, which includes Right
Understanding and Right Intention. Generally speaking, man succeeds in his own
development through insight by means of which he makes right decisions. Right
intention means right deliberation and right understanding leads to right
decisions. Students in the various fields of study all aim at acquiring wisdom
in order to enable them to deliberate rightly and arrive at correct decisions
in accordance with reason and reality. The training in wisdom should in
particular include the knowledge of Ti-lakkhana or the Three Characteristics of
Existence and the practice of Brahma-Vihara or the four Sublime States of
Ti-lakkhana or the Three Characteristics of Existence
All sankhara or phenomenal (compounded) things are subject to Anicca or
impermanence, Dukkha or suffering and Anatta or non-self, which are the three
characteristics of existence.
or impermanence means transience. Everything that has come into existence will
eventually have to pass away. Everything exists only temporarily.
or suffering consists of continual change. All things are subject to incessant
and continual decay. Their owners consequently have to suffer just as much as
the things they possess. For instance, one falls ill when one’s body is out of
or non-self means void of reality or self-existence. Anatta may be explained in
three stages as follows:
1. Not to be too self-centered. Otherwise
one would become selfish and would be actuated only by self-interest and would
not know oneself in the light of truth. For instance, being too egoistic, one
would believe one is in the right or entitled to this or that but in truth
one’s belief is erroneous.
2. We cannot give orders to anything,
including our bodies and minds, to remain unchanged according to our wish. For
instance we could not order our bodies to remain always young and handsome and
our minds always happy and alert.
3. One who has practiced and attained to
the highest level of knowledge will discover that all things including one’s
own body and mind are devoid of self; or, as the Buddhist proverb puts it, “one
becomes non-existent to oneself”. Some people with great insight have no
attachment to anything at all in the world. Nevertheless, during their
lifetimes, they are able to conduct themselves in the right manner (without
defilements) appropriate to the place and circumstances in which they live.
Brahma-vihara or the four Sublime States of consciousness denote for
qualities of the heart which, when developed and magnified to their fullest, lift man to
the highest level of being. These qualities are:
Metta, which means all-embracing kindness
or the desire to make others happy, as opposed to hatred or the desire to make
others suffer. Metta builds up generosity in one’s character, giving it
firmness, freeing it from irritation and excitement, thus generating only
friendliness and no enmity nor desire to harm or cause suffering to anyone,
even to the smallest creatures, through hatred, anger or even for fun.
Karuna, which means compassion or desire
to free those who suffer from their sufferings, as opposed to the desire to be
harmful. Karuna also builds up generosity in one’s character, making one
desirous to assist those who suffer. Karuna is one of the greatest benefactions
of the Buddha as well as of the monarch and of such benefactors as our fathers
Mudita, which means sympathetic joy or
rejoicing with, instead of feeling envious of, those who are fortunate. Mudita
builds up the character in such a way that it promotes only virtues and mutual
happiness and prosperity.
Upekkha, which means equanimity or
composure of mind whenever necessary, for instance, when one witnesses a
person’s misfortune, one’s mind remains composed. One does not rejoice because
that person is one’s enemy nor grieve because that person is one’s beloved. One
should see others without prejudice or preference but in the light of Kamma or
will-action. Everyone is subject to his own Kamma, heir to the effects of his
own will-actions. Earnest contemplation of Kamma or the law of Cause and Effect
will lead to the suppression of egocentric contemplation and result in the
attainment of a state of equanimity. Upekkha builds up the habit of considering
everything from the point of view of right or wrong and ultimately leads to a
sense of right-doing in all things.
These four qualities should be cultivated and developed in our
hearts by generating metta or loving-kindness to all beings in general and to
some in particular. If this practice is repeated often, our minds will become
impregnated with them often, thus displacing hindrances such as hatred and
anger. Pursued long enough, it will ultimately become a habit which will bring
with it only happiness.
Nibbana is Supreme Happiness
There is a Buddhist proverb which states that “Nibbana is Supreme
Happiness”. Nibbana means elimination of desire, not only worldly desire but also
desire in the sphere of the Dhamma. Action not dictated by greed is action leading to
The Buddha was once asked what was meant by saying that “Dhamma”
including “Nibbana” may be “realized by everyone personally”. The Buddha’s reply
was as follows. When one’s mind is subdued by greed, hatred and delusion, volition
harmful to oneself or others or to both oneself and others will arise, causing
physical and/or mental suffering. As soon as such volition arises, unwholesome
actions, be it of body, speech or mind, will inevitably follow. One in such a
state of mind will never be able to recognize, in the light of truth, what is
to his own or others’ benefit, nor to the benefit of both. However when greed,
hatred and delusion are eliminated, when there is no more volition harmful to
oneself or others, or to both, no more unwholesome bodily, verbal or mental
actions, when what is to one’s own or others’ benefit, or both, is recognized
in the light of truth and no more suffering of the body nor even of the mind
occurs, this is the meaning of “Dhamma” leading to “Nibbana”.
According to this explanation of the Buddha, realization of the Dhamma
means realization of one’s own mental states, good as well as bad. No matter in
what state the mind may find itself, one should realize it correctly in the light of truth.
This is what is called realization of the Dhamma. It may be asked what benefit can be
derived from such realization? The answer is that it will bring peace of mind.
When the mind is poisoned with desire, hatred and delusion, it always flows
out-ward. If it is brought back to be examined by itself, the fire of desire,
hatred and delusion will ultimately subside and peace of mind will ensue.
This peace should be carefully discerned and securely retained. This then
is realization of peace of mind which is realization of Nibbana. The way to
realize the Dhamma and attain Nibbana as taught by the Buddha is a natural one
which can be practiced by all from the simplest and lowest to the highest level.
The Noble Truths, the Three Characteristics of Life and Nibbana are
Sacca Dhamma, i.e. Universal or Absolute Truth as realized and taught by the Buddha
(as expounded in the First Sermon and in the Dhammaniyama or Fixedness of the
Dhamma). This may be termed Truth in the light of the Dhamma, which may be
attained through Panna or insight, and this is the Buddhist way to end all
suffering. Buddhism simultaneously teaches the worldly Dhamma or Lokasacca.
This is worldly truth, a “relative reality” or conventional truth which views
the material universe as it really is, i.e. an aggregate of composite factors
existing in relation to certain imperfect states of consciousness such as
belief in the existence of selfhood and all its belongings. But in the worldly
sense it has a conventional identity as exemplified in the Buddha’s saying “A
man is his own refuge”. In this connection, the Buddha said “As the assembled
parts of a cart comprise a cart, so the existence of khandhas or composite
factors of being comprise a being”.
The worldly Dhamma includes conduct in
human society, for instance, the Six Directions (conduct towards our fathers
and mothers, our teachers, our religion, our wives and children and our
servants), as well as religious precepts and disciplinary laws. Along with our
practice of the Dhamma to liberate our minds from suffering according to
Absolute Truth, we should also practice the Dhamma in the light of worldly or
conventional truth. For example, if one is a son, a daughter or a pupil, one should
comply with the Dhamma in a manner appropriate to one’s status and try to study
and use the Dhamma in the solving of one’s daily problems. He should try
everyday to apply the Dhamma in his study, work and other activities. He who
conducts himselfin this manner will see for himself that the Dhamma is truly of
immeasurable benefit to his own existence.