Why study the Buddha's teaching?
Buddhism originated with an Indian prince known as the Buddha,
who taught in Northeast India in the fifth century B.C. Two centuries
later, with the support of the Emperor Ashoka, Buddhism spread
over the greater part of India and from there traveled the full
breadth of the Asian continent. In several tidal waves it rose
up from its Indian homeland and inundated other regions, offering
the peoples among whom it took root a solid foundation of faith
and wisdom upon which to build their lives and a source of inspiration
towards which to direct their hopes.
At different points in history Buddhism
has commanded followings in countries as diverse geographically,
ethnically, and culturally as Afghanistan and Japan, Siberia and
Cambodia, Korea and Sri Lanka;yet all have looked towards the same
Indian sage as their master.
In our own time Indian thinkers as different as Swami
Vivekananda,Tagore, Gandhi, and Nehru have looked upon the Buddha
as a model, as have Western thinkers such as Thoreau.... In the
twentieth century, Buddhism has begun to have a growing impact
on an increasing number of people in the West, and in its own quiet
way it is sending down firm roots in several countries of the Western
Why the Buddha's teaching proved so attractive and gained
such a large following among diverse cultures over 2500 years?
The remarkable success of Buddhism, as well as its contemporary
appeal, can be understood principally in terms of two factors:
the aim of the teaching and its methodology.
The Aim of the Teaching
Unlike the so-called revealed religions, which rest upon faith
in unverifiable doctrines, the Buddha formulated his teaching in
a way that directly addresses the critical problem at the heart
of human existence — the problem of suffering — and
he promises that those who follow his teaching to its end will
realize here and now the highest happiness and peace. All other
concerns apart from this, such as theological dogmas, metaphysical
subtleties, rituals and rules of worship, the Buddha waves aside
as irrelevant to the task at hand, the unraveling of the problem
This pragmatic thrust of the Dhamma is clearly illustrated by
an incident related in the texts. Once a monk
was pondering the great metaphysical questions — whether the world
is eternal or non-eternal, infinite or finite, etc. — and he felt
unhappy because the Buddha had refused to answer them. The spiritual
life, the Buddha told him, does not depend on answers
to these questions, which are mere distractions from the real
challenge of following the path. He then compared the metaphysician
to a man struck by a poisoned arrow. When his relatives bring a
surgeon, the man tells him, " I
won't let you remove the arrow until you let me know the name of
the man who struck me, the type of bow he used, the material from
which the arrow was made, and the kind of poison he used." That
man would die, the Buddha said, before the arrow was removed, and
so too the metaphysician, struck with the arrow of suffering, will
die without ever finding the path to freedom.
Not only does the Buddha make suffering and release from suffering
the focus of his teaching, but he deals with the problem of suffering
in a way that reveals an extraordinary degree of psychological
insight. Like a psychoanalyst, the Buddha traces suffering to its
roots within our minds, to our craving and clinging, and he holds
that the cure, the solution to the problem of suffering, must also
be achieved within our minds. To gain freedom from suffering it
is futile to pray to the gods, to worship holy objects, to attach
ourselves to rituals and ceremonies. Since suffering arises from
our own mental defilements, we have to purify our minds of these
defilements, from our greed, hatred, and ignorance, and this requires
profound inner honesty.
While other religions lead us outward, Buddhism leads us back
to ourselves, always keeping the teaching attuned to the hard facts
of experience. The Buddha places the mind at the forefront of his
analysis and says that it is the mind which fashions our actions,
the mind which shapes our destiny, the mind which leads us towards
misery or happiness. The beginning point of the teaching is the
ordinary mind, in bondage and subject to suffering; the end point
is the enlightened mind, completely purified and liberated from
The whole teaching unfolds between these two points, taking the
most direct route.
Characteristic Features of the Teaching
For the Buddha, the key to liberation is mental purity and correct
understanding, and for this reason he rejects the notion that
we can gain salvation by leaning on any external authority. He
This stress on human effort, on our capacity to liberate ourselves,
is a distinctive feature of early Buddhism and offers a remarkable
affirmation of the human potential. The Buddha does not claim any
divine status for himself, nor does he assert that he is an agent
of human salvation. He claims to be, not a personal savior, but
a guide and teacher:
He urged his disciples to:
Emphasis on experience
Since wisdom or insight
is the chief instrument of enlightenment, the Buddha always asked
his disciples to follow him on the basis of their own understanding,
not from obedience or unquestioning trust. He calls his Dhamma "ehipassiko," which
means "Come and
see for yourself." He invites inquirers to investigate his
teaching, to examine it in the light of their own reason and
intelligence, and to gain confirmation of its truth for themselves.
Because the Buddha's teaching
deals with the most universal of all human problems, the problem
of suffering, he made his teaching a universal message, one which
was addressed to all human beings solely by reason of their humanity.
He held that what made a person noble was his personal character
and conduct, not his family and caste status. Thus he opened the
doors of liberation to people of all social classes. Brahmins, kings
and princes, merchants, farmers, workers, even outcasts - all were
welcome to hear the Dhamma without discrimination, and many from
the lower classes attained the highest stage of enlightenment.
A Code of Ethics
One aspect of the Buddha's
universalism deserves special mention: this is his conception of
a universal code of ethics. It is probably fair to day that the
Buddha was one of the very first teachers to separate out true moral
principles from the complex fabric of social norms and communal customs
with which they were generally interwoven.
With astute sophistication
of thought, the Buddha provides for us an abstract principle to
use as a guideline in determining the basic precepts of morality.
This is the rule of "using oneself as a standard" for
deciding how to treat others.
The Buddha did not regard morality merely as a set of
rules based on reasoning. He taught that there is a universal law
which connects our conduct with our personal destinies, ensuring
that moral justice ultimately prevails in the world. This is the
law of kamma and its fruit, which holds that our intentional actions
determine the type of rebirth we take and the diverse experiences
we undergo in the course of our lives. This law is utterly impersonal
in its operation. It gives no one preferential treatment; it recognizes
no VIPs or favorites, but works with absolute uniformity towards
all. Those who violate the laws of morality - whether they be high
class or low class, rich or poor - acquire unwholesome karma and
must suffer the consequences: a bad rebirth and future misery.
Those who adhere to the moral rules, who engage in virtuous conduct,
acquire wholesome karma leading to future benefits: a good rebirth,
a happy life, and progress on the way to final liberation.
In conformity with the psychological orientation of his teaching,
the Buddha gave special attention to the subjective springs of
morality. He traces immoral behavior to three mental factors called
the "three unwholesome
roots" - greed, hatred, and delusion; and he traces ethical
behavior to their opposites, the three wholesome roots - non-greed
or generosity, non-hate or kindness, and non-delusion or wisdom.
He also directs us to a more refined interior level of ethical
purity to be achieved by developing, in meditation, four lofty
attitudes called the "divine abodes" (brahma-viharas):
loving-kindness, the wish for the
happiness and welfare of all beings; compassion,
the wish that all afflicted with suffering be freed from their
suffering; altruistic joy, rejoicing in the
happiness and success of others; and equanimity,
impartiality of mind. These four attitudes are to be developed
universally, towards all beings without distinctions or discrimination.
Before I close there is one further feature of the Buddha's method
that I want to mention. This is what might be called his "skill
in means." Through
his deep meditative attainments and his enlightened wisdom, the
Buddha had the special ability to discover the precise way to
teach the people who came to him for guidance. He could read
deep into the hidden recesses of a person's heart, perceive that
person's aptitudes and interests, and frame his teaching in the
exact way needed to transform that person and lead him or her
on to the path of freedom. The texts abound in many examples of
this supreme pedagogic skill of the Buddha. Here we relate
just one famous instance.
There was a poor woman who had married into a wealthy family,
but she did not bear children and was thus scorned by her in-laws.
This made her very miserable. But after some time she conceived
and gave birth to a son, who became for her the source of boundless
joy. Now that she had brought forth an heir to their wealth, everyone
else in her husband's family too accepted her. But a few months
after his birth the child died, and KisÃ¥gotami became
distraught. She refused to believe the boy was dead, but convinced
herself he was only ill. Thus she went around everywhere asking
people to give her medicine for her son.
The townsfolk ridiculed her and abused her, calling her a mad
woman, until she finally came into the presence of the Buddha.
When she asked him for medicine, he did not give her an eloquent
sermon on impermanence. He told her that he could indeed make some
medicine for her son, but first she would have to bring him one
ingredient: mustard seeds from a home where no one had ever died.
Quite optimistic, she went from house to house, asking for mustard
seeds. At each door people readily gave her seeds, but when she
asked the donor whether anyone in that home had ever died, she
was told, "Here a father has
died, here a mother, here a wife, here a husband, a brother, a
sister," and so
She thus came to see that death is the universal fate of all living
beings, not a unique calamity that befell her own son. So she returned
to the Buddha, aware now of the universal law of impermanence.
When the Master saw her coming he asked her, "Did you bring
the mustard seeds, Gotami?" And
she replied: "Done, sir, is this business of the mustard seeds.
Grant me a refuge." The
Buddha had her ordained as a nun, and after some time she realized
the highest goal and became one of the most eminent nuns in the
Bhikkhuni Sangha or Order of Nuns.
To sum up, the Buddha's mission was to establish a path to spiritual
to full enlightenment and NibbÃ¥na, liberation from
suffering. He did this by
propounding a teaching that acknowledged our capacity for attaining
perfection yet which also remained fully respectful of the intelligence
autonomy of human beings. His approach was psychological in orientation,
dogmatic, pragmatic, and open to investigation. He emphasized
rectitude, and personal responsibility, and he proclaimed his
universally, holding that the potential for spiritual growth and
even for the
highest enlightenment was accessible to anyone who makes the appropriate
It is these factors that give to the ancient teaching of the Buddha
distinctly modern flavor, making it so relevant to us in these
shifting ideas and changing values.